Justice as tragedy
Here is the legal equivalent of the old philosophical question, about the tree falling in the forest without anyone within earshot: If justice is rendered 18 years and 8 months after the gruesome crime, is it still justice?
It was only on Thursday, Nov. 20, that the Sandiganbayan antigraft court sentenced seven members of the Quezon City engineers’ office and two businessmen to 10 years in prison for the horrific fire that engulfed Ozone Disco Club in 1996, killing 162 persons and (badly) injuring 93 others.
The court heard the case because the Quezon City officials were accused of graft, which allowed the owners of the discotheque to disregard safety regulations. Court administrator Teresa Pabulayan summed up the ruling: “The engineers gave unwarranted and preferential advantage to the Ozone Disco owners. They failed to
detect structural and fire safety deficiencies.”
Those deficiencies included the lack of a real emergency exit; the main entrance served as the exit door too, but because it opened inwards, it became a trap when the surge of panicked discogoers rushed to the door. The court resolution emphasized that damning fact: “Notably, the pile of dead bodies found at the point of entrance/exit of the main dance floor remains a standing testament to the violation [by] Ozone Disco Club [of] the safety requirements on the provision of an exit door.”
Even the infographic which appeared in this newspaper, outlining the tragedy in simplified terms, cannot disguise the horror of the Ozone Disco nightmare: where the fire started (above the disc jockey’s booth), the “pile of dead bodies” clustered near the inward-opening door as if in a sacrificial pyre, the narrow 12-meter-long corridor which led to safety.
“The slapdash approval of the building permits and certificate of occupancy issued in favor of Westwood [the owners of the disco] … marked by a lackadaisical screening of the paper requirements… marks the building officials’ evident bad faith and manifest partiality to the applicant,” the court said.
The following passages from the resolution make the connection between corruption and the tragedy:
“The audacity of Westwood… in the construction of Ozone Disco Club by evading compliance with important provisions of the National Building Code to suit its own business purposes is simply overwhelming …. There can never be a slapdash approval of a building permit and certificate of occupancy. To [shirk] from this duty will certainly run at risk all safety standards contemplated by the National Building Code …. Had the violations been averted at the first instance, the magnitude of those who died and those who continue to endure scars that would haunt them for life, would not have happened.”
So the decision is only reasonable, the logical consequence of incontrovertible facts. The problem with it, as columnist Solita Monsod pointed out on Saturday, is that the facts were already clear and incontrovertible a long time ago. Why did it take the Sandiganbayan 18 years to issue a ruling?
The answer is obvious to anyone who has ever followed a court case in the Philippines. The Supreme Court guidelines on when judges must promulgate a decision (there are different deadlines, depending on the kind of case) are never followed; delay is not only permissible but inevitable. Lawyers for both the prosecution and the defense can resort to dilatory tactics when a delay seems strategic.
This inward-opening door of the legal system, then, is the other tragedy. One of the most famous legal axioms, familiar even to non-lawyers, is almost poignant in its innocence: Justice delayed is justice denied.
Why did it take almost 19 years to sentence the persons liable for the Ozone fire? The answer is chilling, especially because it will be the same reply given years from now, when the Ampatuan Massacre in Maguindanao would still be making its way through the legal maze. The country’s justice system is designed for delay.
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