Former senator Jinggoy Estrada’s guilt or innocence remains to be proven, of course, and is precisely the subject of his trial at the Sandiganbayan. But as to whether he deserves provisional liberty in the course of his case, the law is clear: The charge of plunder, of which Estrada is accused along with graft, is a nonbailable offense.
The fact, then, that he was let out by the Sandiganbayan Fifth Division on a 3-2 vote, after it had earlier denied a similar plea for bail, is a grave disappointment.
More, it is a critical setback in the fight against corruption, as his case represents a rare prosecution of a powerful government official for misconduct in office — for plunder, no less — to have reached the trial stage and the detention of the principal accused.
Estrada’s high-profile case, along with those of his fellow former senators Juan Ponce Enrile (also since released on bail) and Bong Revilla, had seemed a bellwether of whether justice could be served in equal measure on the big fish and the small fry in this country.
Estrada is accused of having received kickbacks from his Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) amounting to P183.79 million from 2004 to 2010, under the money-laundering scam allegedly operated by businesswoman Janet Lim Napoles.
On top of that, he is also facing 11 counts of graft. The evidence against him so far rests on the testimonies of whistle-blower Benhur Luy, coaccused-turned-state witness Ruby Tuason, and a number of other witnesses who have all attested to his participation in Napoles’ scheme that was said to have channeled billions of pesos of legislators’ allocated PDAF to fraudulent nongovernment organizations, with the money eventually divvied up among the conspirators.
Those testimonies are also buttressed by a bank inquiry report by the Anti-Money Laundering Council tracing the links between Estrada and Napoles, including letters signed by Estrada endorsing his PDAF funds to Napoles’ nonexistent NGOs, as well as checks received by Estrada’s bank accounts.
In January 2016, the Sandiganbayan had leaned on what it called this “strong evidence of guilt” against Estrada in rejecting the former senator’s petition for bail.
“That the whistle-blowers were told of how Senator Estrada’s PDAF was allocated is relevant in their testimony on how the bogus NGOs operated as they were all part of the grand scheme,” it said.
What happened in the interim that would occasion the court’s turnaround 20 months later? The acquittal by the Supreme Court of former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo for plunder in 2016 is what happened, according to the court — a development that gave Estrada the opening for a successful reconsideration of his bail petition on grounds of insufficient evidence.
In particular, his lawyers argued that the prosecution had failed to prove that he was the “mastermind” or “main plunderer” in the pork barrel case against him, and, therefore, following Arroyo’s absolution for the similar charge of plunder (of state lottery funds in her case), then Estrada deserved to be granted temporary freedom.
The narrow 3-2 vote attested to the tenuous nature of that argument, with the two dissenters, Associate Justice Rafael Lagos and Associate Justice Zaldy Trespeses, strongly questioning not only the contention that the evidence against Estrada was weak, but also whether the application of Arroyo’s Supreme Court acquittal to this particular case was appropriate at all.
Trespeses would add, for good measure, that even with the use of this new doctrine, the case against Estrada as outlined in the court’s rejection of his first bail petition should still deny him his second bid, because “the strength of these pieces of evidence remains undiminished.”
But the assertion of Estrada’s camp prevailed, and now he’s out—and expecting his friend Revilla to soon be another bail baby. It appears the campaign against corruption in high places has just been dealt another body blow.
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