Special court necessary
But why is the proposal to form a special court to try cases arising from the pork barrel scam being dismissed so peremptorily? Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano’s proposition deserves at least some serious thought, but two of his colleagues—Senators Francis Escudero and Teofisto Guingona III—have immediately thumbed down the idea.
Cayetano is asking the Supreme Court to designate a special criminal court whose sole work would be to hold daily hearings on cases related to the racket involving the Priority Development Assistance Fund. The most compelling reason he cites is the glacial pace of justice in the country, which can only benefit the guilty in the long run because they have more money and resources to prolong the proceedings. The longer the cases sit in court, the easier it is for powerful parties to attempt to lose evidence, bribe or intimidate witnesses, work on the sitting judge, and generally manipulate the system to their advantage.
As Cayetano noted in Filipino, “Justice in our country is very slow. Four years after, the Ampatuan massacre remains unresolved. The PDAF scam is almost a year old, but no case has been filed in court.”
He’s right, of course. The Ampatuan massacre itself is being handled by a “a special court which should have no other duties but the trial of Maguindanao massacre cases,” as the Supreme Court stated in June 2011 in response to a petition filed by the National Press Club of the Philippines and the Alyansa ng Filipino Mamamahayag. Branch 221 of the Regional Trial Court of Quezon City was named such because of “material factors such as the large number of accused, victims, and witnesses involved in the trial”—the sheer magnitude of the case, in short, requiring the exclusive, undistracted focus of the court.
How is that different from the PDAF scam? The controversy relating to the plunder of the pork barrel funds is as massive in scope as the horrific massacre of 58 people in Ampatuan, Maguindanao, the majority of them local media workers. Not only is the amount said to have been siphoned off staggering—P10 million—but the personages linked to the scandal constitute the top echelon of the Philippine political system. So far, three senators have been charged in the Office of the Ombudsman; many more congressmen and other government officials up and down the bureaucracy may prove to be liable. The voluminous paper trail, along with the testimonies of the various whistle-blowers, need minute, comprehensive vetting and counterchecking if the whole truth about the pork barrel plunder is to be pursued.
As it is, despite its exclusive mandate to work on the Ampatuan massacre, the special court is still hobbled by inordinate delays, the lack of witnesses (some 88 suspects are still at large), the diversionary antics of opposing lawyers, and many other difficulties that a local court is typically heir to. Imagine if the cases were lodged in an ordinary court, along with thousands of other moldering cases. Now, imagine the same scenario for the PDAF cases, with the Sandiganbayan having to fit these into its congested docket—the one issue that has galvanized the public to force the government to abolish the hated pork barrel system suddenly having to compete for the court’s time, attention and resources with other less urgent or compelling cases.
Guingona’s reason for rejecting Cayetano’s proposal is rather meretricious. “The Sandiganbayan is already a special court,” he said, warning it may be thought that trust in the antigraft court had been eroded. “Baka sabihin indirectly na nawawalan na tayo ng tiwala sa Sandiganbayan.”
Worrying about the feelings of the Sandiganbayan justices should be the least of Guingona’s, or the public’s, concerns. What is paramount at this point is for the PDAF trial to get going, for the process of truth-seeking to finally begin, to be fair to everyone concerned who has had to live so far with questions and cross-examinations via the media. The senators accused, if they have nothing to hide, would welcome the speedy disposition of their cases. The whistle-blowers, too, need to have their testimonies officially admitted as evidence as soon as possible. And the public should be shown that something solid is at the heart of all the allegations and stories so far told in Senate hearings and media headlines—something sufficient to convict the guilty.
A special court to try the plunder of public funds in our time is not only a good idea. The circumstances also call for it.
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