Twisting in the wind

When this ends, as all things — even the most heated love affair or the most rabid hold on power — do, Salvador Panelo will look back and squirm. Or should.

Speaking on Tuesday with Malacañang reporters who wanted to know why, in the course of denying that he had anything to do with the attempted early release of Antonio Sanchez on supposed good behavior, he did not mention that he had formally referred to the Board of Pardons and Parole (BPP) Sanchez’s request for executive clemency as relayed by his family, Panelo tried mightily to explain away the egregious omission. And the sight of him twisting in the wind was not pretty, somewhat evoking the image of someone who had once held the post and had since fully embraced the dark side: like a deer caught in the headlights.


He had merely been discharging his duty of forwarding all requests to the proper offices, Panelo said, reading portions of his letter dated Feb. 26, 2019, to BPP executive director Reynaldo Bayang from a file he held in his hand and constantly waved about. He said he had referred the matter to Bayang’s office for “evaluation” and “appropriate action,” and had asked that he be updated on whatever was the official decision. Nothing more, he said, than a referral.

To the attentive observer, the text and tone of Panelo’s discourse are SOP among those caught in a sticky situation from which there is no escape: There was nothing illegal in my action. Nowhere was there pressure on the BPP in that formal communication. And, as he in effect said in the face of reporters’ demands to know why they were kept in the dark about his referral letter when they had constantly inquired from him, to the point of badgering, if he had intervened in any way to bring about Sanchez’s release, they did not ask the right question.


To be sure, unspoken in the letter was any instruction for Bayang to let the former mayor of Calauan, Laguna, walk on the basis of good conduct time allowance (GCTA). There was no gun pointed at Bayang’s head to obligate him to cite Republic Act No. 10592 in approving the early release of the convicted rapist-murderer. In fact, it’s noteworthy that Panelo pronounced his act as “in line with the President’s commitment for good governance, transparency and immediate action on matters that affect the welfare of the people,” as though to invest it with the blessings of the big guy himself.

Nevertheless, it was hardly surprising that Bayang — in the official pecking order a “mere” prisons official — would mention Panelo’s letter during the Senate inquiry conducted by the committee on justice and human rights. (As those wise to the ways of the streets would say, “Laglagan na.”) Sen. Richard Gordon, who called Panelo a friend, disclaimed malice in his questioning that led to the disclosure of the letter, and indeed, Panelo himself has decried the supposed malice being read into it and has threatened legal action. But can anyone reasonably deny that referral correspondence from the President’s spokesperson and chief legal counsel carried the weight of a command?

And did Panelo, who had served as Sanchez’s counsel during the trial that found the ex-mayor guilty of the rape-murder of Eileen Sarmenta and the murder of her friend Allan Gomez, think that the document would not ever surface? Or even that a niggling sense of propriety should have stopped him from writing it?

With the discovery of the release on good behavior of almost 2,000 prisoners, including those convicted of heinous crimes as well as drug offenses, the administration has a powder keg on its hands. The planned deployment of “tracker teams” to hunt down those shown to be wrongly freed adds to the tension and the general perception of lawlessness.

Was Cagayan de Oro Rep. Rufus Rodriguez being unreasonable when he said “we have a ground to suspect that money changed hands in [granting these petitions]” for early release under GCTA? Perhaps Bureau of Corrections (BuCor) chief Nicanor Faeldon, who by his words appears to operate in a bubble devoid of moral context, and Sen. Bato dela  Rosa, his predecessor and the champion of second chances, may be persuaded to shine a light on the prison system’s dank, slippery corners.

And perhaps the authorities may begin to unravel why Ruperto Traya Jr., chief administrator of the BuCor’s Inmate’s Document Processing Division, had to be killed.

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TAGS: Antonio Sanchez, Inquirer Commentary, Reynaldo Bayang, Rosario A. Garcellano, Salvador Panelo
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