The honorable Janet Napoles
Lady Justice wears a blindfold because she is supposed to use the balance she holds in one hand and wield the sword she holds in the other without looking — at the subject of judgment, or the measuring scale, or the sword. In the Philippines, however, as in other countries with judiciaries vulnerable to political or economic pressure, Lady Justice often lifts the blindfold to peek.
Lifting the blindfold comes in many forms. In 2015, majority of Supreme Court justices voted to grant Juan Ponce Enrile, then a senator, the privilege of posting bail in the non-bailable case of plunder because of his “social and political standing.” To the horror of many, who saw the invocation of this status as unfair peeking, the majority offered a lame rationalization: “In our view, his social and political standing and his having immediately surrendered to the authorities upon his being charged in court indicate that the risk of his flight or escape from this jurisdiction is highly unlikely.” The majority also invoked humanitarian considerations, which the veteran politician did not even include in his pleadings.
In 2016, the Supreme Court again lifted the blindfold, and with unusual powers of sight beheld that Gloria Arroyo — president of the Philippines at the time of the plunder of state lottery funds — was not the “main plunderer” in the case. (Whatever happened to the fundamental principle that in a conspiracy, the act of one is the act of all?)
This year, the Sandiganbayan played catch-up with the Supreme Court and lifted the blindfold too — and saw, with the fresh eyes of a new, tie-breaking appointee of President Duterte — that because of former senator Jinggoy Estrada’s prominence, he was not a flight risk (“the probability of flight is not that much,” in the jejune language of the anti-graft court) and that the previous finding that there was strong evidence of Estrada’s guilt could be set aside.
It takes grim determination to not see the mountains of evidence against Estrada, and instead to focus on the molehill of the Arroyo precedent: In what essentially amounted to Estrada’s second motion for reconsideration of the earlier decision to deny him bail, his lawyers argued that the state had failed to prove that the former senator was the “main plunderer” in his plunder case.
Sandiganbayan Associate Justice Zaldy Trespeses, who dissented from the decision allowing Estrada the privilege of posting bail, pointed out the obvious: “The strength of these pieces of evidence remains undiminished.” And yet here we are, courtesy of that blindfold slipping, however temporarily, from Lady Justice.
Now comes the Honorable Janet Lim Napoles, whom an entire range of cases depicts as the mastermind of the Priority Development Assistance Fund scam (which Enrile, Estrada and another ex-senator, Bong Revilla, are alleged to have taken part in). She wants what Estrada is having.
“This is very good for us,” her lawyer Dennis Buenaventura said, after the anti-graft court allowed Estrada to post bail. This “favorable development,” he said, “definitely touches the main information [or case] itself.”
The Sandiganbayan’s ruling that the state had failed to identify a “main plunderer” in Estrada’s case should apply to Napoles herself, Buenaventura argued. “In the legal definition of plunder, the main plunderer cannot be a private person. It should be a public officer. So if it appears like that, this is not plunder.”
This is what happens when Lady Justice peeks behind the blindfold — she opens the way to the possibility that, because eminent political personalities were involved in the biggest corruption scandal in the last 20 years or so, and because the courts have bent over backwards to accommodate their eminence, under different rationalizations — the P10-billion PDAF scam will end up being considered as “not plunder.”
“The [Arroyo] case made things clearer,” Napoles’ lawyer said. “That would be the guide” — to a legal black hole.
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