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Visit Trillanes; strengthen institutions

/ 05:28 AM September 18, 2018

I visited with Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV last Friday. The Senate was nearly empty; even one of the pulldown gates guarding the glass doors of the main entrance had been pulled down, a precaution against Typhoon “Ompong.” It seemed only Senate security and reporters on arrest watch — and the staff of a senator under threat of arrest — were still on duty.

We met in one of the cubicles of his Senate office; he looked none the worse for wear, despite being under virtual siege for almost two weeks. We spoke, for over an hour, mainly about what he called “the mysteries of Philippine politics.”

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There is no mystery about why Solicitor General Jose Calida masterminded the attempt to revoke the amnesty granted to Trillanes, and timed the arrest to take place on Sept. 4: He did not want the Senate inquiry chaired by Trillanes, investigating the controversial government contracts won by his security agency and scheduled for that very day, to proceed. (He failed.) And there is no mystery why President Duterte signed off on the elaborate plan, and signed the legally infirm presidential proclamation, against Trillanes: He wanted to sideline one of his most prominent, and most vocal, critics.

The evidence, for both, is copious — it’s there in Proclamation No. 572, in the evasions of Calida, in the unscripted statements of Chief Presidential Legal Counsel Salvador Panelo, in the President’s own assertions. It’s there in both the structure and the substance of that bizarre “tête-à-tête” that an obviously enervated President indulged in.

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No mystery there; we did not feel the need to talk about any of it. Instead, we spoke about (and sometimes argued over) the administration’s mystifying miscalculations. To give a for instance:

Senate President Vicente Sotto III is a political partner of the President’s, but the events of Sept. 4 couldn’t have been more disrespectful of an ally. The administration completely misread him; his base in the Senate is secure, and he was naturally inclined to protect that base, especially against mere policemen trying to effect a warrantless arrest. A related example: The Senate was unanimous (this time) in objecting against the obvious attempt to sideline a critic of the President’s; the all-members caucus on the first day of the crisis reinforced Sotto’s original decision about protecting institutional integrity.

There was a larger mystery. Trillanes’ second term ends in nine months; he cannot run for reelection or for any other national office next year. But President Duterte and Calida have instead guaranteed him even more prominence. Another mystery: Some people, emboldened by the support Trillanes is getting, are now encouraging him to think about running for the presidency. This is one of the “ironies” of life, he said, one which seems to bemuse him, but he was clear and emphatic about his role in politics. “There is only one leader of the opposition, and that is VP Leni. I know my place in the sun.”

How the crisis will play out is another mystery. He summed up President Duterte’s options in what seems to me to be a well-worn phrase; I couldn’t have been the first person to ask him to consider future scenarios. “He’s at a crossroads. Either he stands down, or he digs in. He’s digging in.”

That can only mean more political turbulence ahead. But he does have his sources of optimism, including a perhaps naive belief in the country’s courts acting more independently. Two branches of the Makati Regional Trial Court did decline to be rushed into issuing arrest warrants; that’s a partial, temporary victory. The Supreme Court seems to be following suit. All he needs, he suggests, is an even playing field, as guaranteed by stronger democratic institutions.

Trillanes is forceful about what is at stake. The “case” against him does not hold; it cannot hold, otherwise all amnesties, and even the presumption of regularity which undergirds many official acts, will be undermined. Singling him out also violates the equal protection clause. If he is placed behind bars, or forced back under military jurisdiction, the message will be unmistakable: The President jails his critics.

For this reason, I suggest to him, the Catholic bishops, and the superiors of religious orders, must be heard from. “If rulers were to enact unjust laws or take measures contrary to the moral order, such arrangements would not be binding in conscience,” I later read in the Catechism. Defying Proclamation No. 572 and all it represents is eminently an act of conscience.

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On Twitter: @jnery_newsstand. E-mail: jnery@inquirer.com.ph

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TAGS: amnesty revocation, Antonio Trillanes IV, john Nery, Jose Calida, Newsstand, revocation of amnesty, Rodrigo Duterte, Vicente Sotto III
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