Monday, September 2, 2013

State witness or accomplice

Janet Napoles, the “pork-barrel queen,” has been the most hated Filipino woman in recent days, perhaps rivaling the public’s revulsion of former president Gloria Arroyo or even the first lady Imelda Marcos. For her notoriety, Napoles has been elevated to celebrity status and now the most popular butt of jokes in social media. Even her photo while being pushed around in a Louis Vuitton-designed wheelchair has been flashed on YouTube and other media along with the photograph of Lady Gaga’s similar wheelchair ride.
After several weeks of inept manhunt by the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) to apprehend Napoles on allegations of being the principal in a P10-billion pork barrel scam, and the growing suspicion of her scripted surrender to President Noynoy Aquino, Napoles has become a comical sideshow to the people’s outrage against pork barrel.
Mugshots of Janet Napoles. Photo courtesy of the Philippine National Police (PNP).
It is a misdirected public indignation. In this respect, the social media is equally to blame in turning Napoles into a clown instead of seriously focusing on the larger issue of corruption in government. The social media is turning Napoles to a hapless and miserable caricature. Whether Napoles is the scam’s mastermind or just an accomplice should not be the only focus of this ongoing sideshow, but the information she could disclose which is important in the pursuit of truth. There are people in the high echelons of government who could be possibly implicated -- this pork barrel scam is merely the surface of an almost bottomless pit of government corruption.
Right now, no charges have been laid against Napoles, except for alleged illegal detention or kidnapping of Benhur Luy, the principal whistleblower of the pork barrel scam. The Department of Justice and the NBI have not completed their investigation while the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee plans to conduct a separate inquiry. The stunning surrender of Napoles to President Aquino also raises the speculation that the government is planning to use Napoles as a state witness in prosecuting some senators and members of the opposition in Congress for their involvement in the pork barrel scam. In exchange for turning as a state witness, Napoles obviously could ask for immunity from prosecution or bargain for a lighter penalty for the role she played in the scam.
The current administration’s plan to make Napoles a state witness could easily be seen as a ploy to divert the issue away from President Aquino’s allies who were named in the Commission on Audit report. This would turn the investigation of the misuse and abuse of the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) into a witch hunt that could target certain political enemies of the Aquino administration.
Whether Napoles can be turned into a state witness is debatable. Doubters argue that Napoles could be the most guilty, therefore, not qualified to become a state witness. But in the grand scheme of government theft, how can someone of Napoles’s stature as a mere commoner be the most guilty? Shouldn’t the usual suspects be those in power who have control of the purse and its disbursement? Or those who have the final authority to decide, which in this case happens to be our legislators and high-ranking members of the executive department?
Perhaps, it’s the entire system of government we have that is most guilty. But a government could only be as good or as bad as the people who run it.
Turning Napoles into a state witness will pervert the system of justice. Napoles will become a tool for the miscarriage of justice, especially if she is used to expose the corruption of some members of Congress on the pretext of cleaning the government. If not the scam’s principal which seems doubtful, at the very least, Napoles is an accomplice in the scam. Under the law, an accomplice has the same degree of culpability as the principal or primary offender, and faces the same criminal penalties.
Our most serious concern however, should be whether the investigation and the consequent trial of those culpably involved in the PDAF pork barrel scam would be tried under the full force of the law. There is no assurance that the testimony of Napoles could bring down the corrupt senators and congressmen who were allegedly involved in the PDAF scandal. And there is reason to be skeptical.
Just look at the history of cases of graft and corruption and other crimes brought by the government against our politicians. The Marcos family had been chased out of the country after the EDSA People Power Revolution in 1984, but several decades have already passed and yet Imelda Marcos still has to stand trial for her involvement in one of the greatest cases of plunder in Philippine history. Worse, some of the cases against Marcos have been dismissed. Where are the members of the Marcos family now? Imelda Marcos sits as representative of Ilocos Norte in Congress and her son Bongbong is a senator who may have ambitions of running for president in 2016. Daughter Imee is governor of Ilocos Norte and was once a member of Congress, too. Most likely, they have also collected their share of the pork barrel.
After almost four years since the mass killing, the cases against the Ampatuans and their co-accused in the Maguindanao massacre remain at a standstill. To date, the court is still hearing their petition for bail. Meanwhile, some witnesses have died or been killed or recanted their testimonies.  

Nearly four years after the Maguindanao massacre, the perpetrators of this
gruesome crime have not been found guilty by the courts.

Former president Joseph Estrada was impeached in the Senate and was ousted from the presidency in 2001 by EDSA People Power 2. Local newspapers reported as early as 1999 about a plot to embarrass Estrada by attributing to his administration all sorts of perceived faults and scams in order to cover up anomalies and scams committed by his predecessor, Fidel Ramos. Estrada was sentenced by the Sandiganbayan to life imprisonment for plunder but was later pardoned by his successor, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. He ran for president again in the 2010 presidential election and finished runner-up to President Noynoy Aquino. During the recent local elections last June, Estrada ran and won as mayor of Manila.
Whatever is happening to the cases of corruption and plunder against former president Gloria Arroyo?
Last May 25, 2013, the Office of the Ombudsman dismissed the charges of bribery and corruption against Arroyo for lack of sufficient evidence. Recall that on November 18, 2011, Arroyo was arrested following the filing of criminal charges for electoral fraud. She was incarcerated at the Veterans Memorial Medical Center in Quezon City as a form of house arrest for health reasons. Arroyo, despite winning back her congressional seat in Pampanga in the last elections, continues to be under hospital arrest in connection with a plunder case involving alleged misuse of Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office funds.
Arroyo’s detention is nearing two years already, yet she has not been tried for her crimes. Every citizen, whether she is the most hated or most evil person, is entitled to her day in court as guaranteed by the right to a speedy trial under the Constitution and the Speedy Trial Act of 1998, or Republic Act No. 8493.
The concept of reasonable time in which to have a trial seems to attract little value in the Philippine justice system. Although what is reasonable is left to the court to decide in the circumstances of individual cases, lengthy and unnecessary delays in trying the accused could violate his or her constitutional right. It is not just the infringement of a constitutional right which is important but delays may outweigh the strong societal interest in having serious charges, such as corruption and plunder, be tried on their merits.
The very slow wheels of justice in the Philippines will work to the advantage of Janet Napoles. Her lawyers could use every legal trick in the book to delay the trial of her case, if this ever reaches the courts. Certainly, those senators and congressmen who might be implicated in the scam can likewise employ the same tricks, in addition to parliamentary immunity. Thanks to pork barrel, they have the luxury of money and time to delay and delay their cases until the public has forgotten their rage.
The current pork barrel scandal, more than beyond exposing the corruption of Napoles and Congress, has also effectively disclosed the glaring contradiction between the current government’s pronouncements and what it actually does in practice. That the present government is not as spotless as it purports to be. For one thing, the Aquino administration justifies the morality of the pork barrel system by making it an important instrument for the government to carry out its mandate, despite programs which are not in the best interests of the people.
How can the people trust a government that doesn’t follow the words it says?
We should not vacillate in our protests against corruption in government. The current Aquino administration, being the staunchest defender of the pork barrel system, should not be spared of our collective outrage simply because the yellow media and the President’s spinmeisters have painted Noynoy Aquino as morally upright and incorruptible.

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