If there’s one thing our politicians are good at, it is the ability to use legal principles and human rights whenever convenient, but disregard them when they’re not. Some brand themselves as champions of women’s rights but are silent when it comes to President Duterte’s misogyny. Mr. Duterte himself mocks the idea of human rights, but calls for due process when it comes to himself, his family and his friends.
Another example that figures prominently nowadays is what we can call “convenient senility”: the appropriation of legal benefits and protections for the elderly for legal or political gain. Like many societies, we have provisions that afford special treatment to seniors, taking into account their financial and physical frailty. Ironically, however, it is those in power who are able to take advantage of them.
Consider the relatively advanced age of our high-level officials (Duterte’s original Cabinet had an average age of 66) and the fact that a majority of elderly (80 percent in one study) have at least one chronic disease. Consider, too, that court cases take years, if not decades, to get resolved. By the time a guilty sentence is finally passed, convicted politicians will declare themselves too old to go to jail, thus affording them impunity based on longevity.
The case of Juan Ponce Enrile is illustrative: Arrested for plunder, he argued that, because he was over 70 when the alleged, nonbailable offense was committed, he deserved bail. The Supreme Court agreed, citing his “advanced age and ill health.” And yet, three years later, he is strong enough to run for the Senate.
The recent conviction of Imelda Marcos raises a similar scenario. The 89-year-old former first lady will likely cite her old age to avoid any jail time—even as she is currently running for governor. Alas, our officials are happy to partake in the double standard: Already, Philippine National Police Director General Oscar Albayalde has been quoted as saying that her “age” and “health” will be “taken into consideration” if and when she does get arrested.
Rodrigo Duterte himself recognizes his age as a legal asset, stating in 2016: “I am already 71 and according to the Revised Penal Code, you have to be released once you reach 70… After the end of my term, I’ll be 77. Where will you place me?” Convinced of the efficacy of convenient senility, he acts as if his age will be another line of defense once he loses his grip on power.
This misuse of senility is revelatory of an unfair justice system: As netizens were quick to point out, the “consideration” Albayalde mentioned did not apply to a 79-year-old man jailed in 2012 for stealing chocolates worth P36, or to a 94-year-old woman arrested in August 2018 for parricide.
The misuse of senility, moreover, is detrimental to the cause of senior citizens and those who legitimately need special treatment, as they will erode public support for efforts to secure more benefits for them.
To be clear, I am not advocating that we abandon due consideration for the sick and elderly — only that we take steps to prevent abuse. Speeding up the resolution of cases is a clear step forward: Had Imelda been arrested and convicted in 1986, she would have been a sprightly 57 then. Given the demographic changes since 1930 when the Revised Penal Code was passed (note that the life expectancy then was 40 years), perhaps we can also rethink its provisions, particular as it applies to politicians who hold office well into their 80s. If health is the concern, how about medically supervised detention?
Ultimately, however, the surest way that can dissuade people from misusing their old age is its having a political cost—that is, if they (and their family members) lose votes (and elections) on account of their attempts to run away from punishment with a wheelchair.
Thus, I hope more Filipinos realize the ridiculousness of people claiming they are too old to go to jail — but not too old to run for government positions. Or the sheer absurdity of longevity translating to impunity.
Indeed, convenient senility will only end when enough Filipinos realize it has no place in a society that ought to protect the elderly and the frail — not the corrupt and the mighty.
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