A war of attrition
It may take some time, perhaps even months, depending on the legal strategies of the accused, but an arrest warrant will eventually be issued for senators Juan Ponce Enrile, Jose “Jinggoy” Ejercito Estrada Jr. and Ramon “Bong” Revilla Jr., as well as alleged mastermind Janet Lim Napoles and five other persons implicated in the billion-peso pork barrel scam. When that happens, Enrile will find himself in familiar territory.
In February 1990, during the first Aquino administration, he was arrested on the charge of rebellion complexed with murder, for his alleged participation in the December 1989 coup attempt. He was Senate minority leader at the time, and became the first incumbent senator to be detained since martial law. Interestingly, he had a hand in that too. In September 1972, senators Benigno Aquino Jr., Jose Diokno and Ramon Mitra Jr. were arrested on the night the Marcos administration imposed martial rule. Enrile was the martial law administrator at the time.
Perhaps this history helps explain why we did not hear a word from Enrile or any of his staff, the day the Ombudsman finally filed plunder charges against the first nine persons implicated in the pork barrel scam. The 90-year-old politician has seen his share of ups and downs.
Estrada, too, had been arrested before, in 2001. He was still mayor of San Juan, and had been identified as among those benefiting from the centralization of jueteng (the illegal numbers game) right in Malacañang, when his father was president. This may help explain why he has been rather sanguine about going to jail again. “I will go wherever they want me to go and surrender,” he said.
Revilla, like Estrada and Estrada’s father, an actor who parlayed his popularity into a successful political career, has never been arrested. This may help explain why, of the three senators indicted for plunder (graft charges are also to be filed this week, at the earliest), he is the one seeking to move heaven and earth and everything in between to delay the inevitable.
Today, he is scheduled to deliver another privilege speech on the Senate floor; we can guess what he will say. Perhaps there will be references to insights realized during his high-profile journey to the Holy Land after the scandal broke; nothing becomes a martyr so much like a celebrated sinner who has suddenly gotten religion. He tried last week to file what is called a “motion for judicial determination of probable cause” with the Supreme Court, but missed the deadline. (This tactic can be used to buy an accused time; an arrest warrant may be put on hold while the motion is being resolved and responses from the parties involved are being assessed.) His lawyer vows to “exhaust all legal remedies.”
Unfortunately for Philippine history, “all legal remedies” may yet mean that justice in the pork barrel scam will elude us. In terms of outcome, we have the cautionary example of Estrada’s own father. Joseph “Erap” Ejercito Estrada was famously convicted of plunder, but was almost immediately pardoned by a calculating president; his pardon was premised on political retirement, but both letter and spirit of the pardon have not stopped the elder Estrada from running for president again in 2010 (he lost) and for mayor of Manila in 2013 (he won).
In terms of process, we have the monitory case of Enrile’s 1990 arrest. Despite what was characterized as strong evidence, he eventually won that case. One important factor was the government’s original blunder. It needlessly created a new “complexed” crime with which to charge him; the Supreme Court set the justice department right.
In terms of initial accountability, we have many examples of well-connected personalities who avoid arrest, whether by going underground (for example, then Sen. Panfilo “Ping” Lacson) or through legal strategy (for example, Jaime Dichaves).
In short, justice in the pork barrel scam may yet elude us—unless we see last week’s filing of charges as merely one skirmish in a long war of attrition. The objective in such a war is to wear down the enemy through constant, usually small-scale, attack. If the Filipino people see the first wave of indictments as merely part of the beginning of a long struggle, then we can be better prepared to fight off attempts to make justice elusive. Public pressure and vigilance are imperative.
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