Saturday, May 24, 2014

Presumed guilty

Without fully understanding the implications of what he says in public, President Benigno Aquino III is actually supplanting the time-honored principle of presumption of innocence with a presumption of guilt. Even worse is his arrogance to ensconce a double standard of morality in politics.
On one hand, President Aquino believes Senators Juan Ponce Enrile, Ramon Revilla and Jinggoy Estrada are guilty as charged of corruption, plunder and other crimes against the government. All of them are presumed guilty to the eyes of President Aquino, just like most everyone else is led to believe, even if the charges are still in the process of being filed before the Sandiganbayan.
On the other hand, people like the President’s Budget Secretary Florencio Abad, Agriculture Secretary Proceso Alcala, and Technical Educational and Skills Development Authority director general Joel Villanueva who were also named in the list of those involved in the pork barrel scandal are innocent to his eyes. To the President, his cabinet men are on a different plane and should be presumed innocent unless proven guilty by a court of law.
Members of the Kilusang Mayo Uno wear masks depicting President Benigno
Aquino, Local Government Secretary Mar Roxas, lawyer Lorna Kapunan, and
(on wheelchair) alleged pork barrel queen Janet Lim-Napoles during a rally in
Mendiola. The rallyists called for an end to the preferential treatment being
accorded Napoles. Photo by Alexis Corpuz.
Curiously, former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo continues to be detained even if none of the charges laid against her have not been proven by the state. Because President Aquino and the public in general are all convinced that Arroyo is guilty by any stretch of imagination.
This is the new normal under President Aquino’s administration. Allies and friends are presumed innocent while political enemies are presumed guilty.
However, the bastardization of the presumption of innocence under the Aquino presidency is not without its merits. After all, the reality is that no defendant would face trial unless it is believed there is probable cause that the defendant was guilty of a crime. They wouldn’t have prosecuted the accused if he or she weren’t guilty of something, which is the common supposition before the court. For instance, outside of the formal investigation process, there is widespread public knowledge, thanks to media scrutiny and vigilance, that those involved in the pork barrel scandal are factually guilty even though a trial has not been set for them to face the charges.
The only problem with this presumption of guilt is it could apply to all accused of corruption in government. Guilt is a very wide net that can catch everyone in the government, whether by suspicion or mere inference, and regardless of rank or pay grade. That said, even President Aquino is not immune from a presumption of guilt for he could be as culpable as any of his cabinet staff or his dreaded political enemies.

President Noynoy Aquino with one of his most trusted men in cabinet, Budget
 Secretary Florencio Abad. Could Aquino be talking about Abad's innocence?
But as an alternative to a presumption of innocence, a presumption of guilt is inquisitorial and contrary to the principles of a free society. Thus, the presumption of innocence is not just symbolic but essential to the criminal process.
What does the presumption of innocence mean?
The presumption of innocence is a vital part of our criminal law system. It means that the accused doesn’t have to prove he or she is innocent. Instead, the job falls on the prosecutor or the state to prove the accused guilty. In other words, unless the accused has been proved to have committed the crime, he or she is entitled to be acquitted or found “not guilty.”
The underlying purpose of this presumption is to protect the rights of individuals when the state accuses them of a crime. It is often said that it is better that the guilty go free than the innocent be convicted.
But the judicial system is not without controversy. Some see the system as being stacked in favour of the accused, rather than protecting their rights. And despite all of the protection in the system, miscarriages of justice still happen where innocent people are convicted. Those in positions of power are generally perceived as more likely than those outside this circle to exercise warped judgment, transforming the criminal justice system into an instrument to protect themselves and their exercise of power.
President Aquino’s exhortation, therefore, that his cabinet secretaries should be presumed innocent rather than guilty as he has characterized the actions of his political enemies, is clearly aimed in protecting and preserving the incorruptibility of his government. In short, he is ignoring the true purpose of the presumption of innocence while affirming that many of those accused or alleged to have been involved in the pork barrel scandal are presumed guilty just because they happen to be his political enemies.
Civil society, however, is under no obligation to refrain from criticism of government officials based on a blatant misunderstanding of presumption of innocence. This is particularly relevant in the current situation in which the public is being fed with too much conflicting information about government corruption.
There are many incompatible lists of individuals implicated in the scandal and inconsistent testimonies between the alleged mastermind or potential state witness and whistleblowers who could be motivated by personal or vested interests. The executive and legislative branches of government seem to be at a loss on how to proceed with their respective investigations.
Spokespersons for the President appear to offer differing statements on behalf of the administration. The Ombudsman has left for a trip abroad without filing the charges against the three aforementioned senators before the Sandiganbayan. Even half-brothers elected to the Senate are at odds with each other as to the possible fallout of the scandal on their own political careers prompting their father, a disgraced former president for acts of plunder, to intervene.

Could there be any connection between President Aquino and the alleged pork barrel
queen, Janet Napoles, here in a photo taken in 2012?
It’s a political circus which the pork barrel scandal has created, muddling the fundamental issue of corruption in government, which appears lost in the crucial examination because the personalities and characters involved have become more important rather than their own sins and omissions.
In the end, either President Aquino should presume all are innocent before trial or all are presumed guilty. Not where others have more legal rights and therefore presumed innocent. The better approach it seems is to take heed of President Aquino’s presumption of guilt for those implicated in the scandal, but it should include his own men if he wants to appear fair and just.
Let’s throw the presumption of innocence off the bus and declare everyone guilty, and let them prove their innocence. It makes more sense to reverse the burden of proof and let it fall on the accused, especially for those in the public service. Every time that public trust is breached, people are deceived.
Indulging a presumption of innocence before a finding of guilt is too much of an accommodation to give. Besides, this demand for a presumption of innocence outside of criminal court is both cunning and deceitful when the President of the country uses it to excuse the culpability of his own cabinet.
It is no doubt cold comfort for President Aquino to subscribe to a generous interpretation of the presumption of innocence that applies only to his allies and friends. This interpretation would not comport with the supposed persistence of a foundational legal principle, especially when stretched outside its province.
Furthermore, this is like expecting a lot or dreaming about the impossible from a failed system where corruption is widespread and so pervasive. No wonder that the Philippines consistently belongs in the exclusive list of “failed states,” in the dishonourable company of other countries who have miserably and ineffectually failed to solve corruption in government.

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