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Enrile’s privileges

/ 12:49 AM August 21, 2015

The decision of the Supreme Court granting Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile provisional release upon payment of a P1-million cash bond was released late Thursday morning, allowing the most prominent suspect in the billion-peso pork barrel scam to leave the Camp Crame hospital where he had been detained and to return to the Senate.

When the outcome of the decision was announced on Tuesday, a lawyer for the former Senate president eagerly announced that Enrile was ready to reassume his Senate duties immediately. “He’s really into law,” counsel Eleazar Reyes said, by which he must have meant that the senator—the only politician who has been active in Philippine politics since the 1960s—was raring to get back to lawmaking.

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We can understand the bravado that accompanied this statement. There are political and personal reasons for saying that, after the yearlong distraction of detention, Enrile was only focused on work.

But Enrile had been given the privilege of hospital arrest on account of his advanced age and various ailments. The idea that he can go straight back to work after several months in the Philippine National Police General Hospital is jarring; if he can go to work right away, perhaps he didn’t really need to be confined in the hospital in the first place.

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There wasn’t even an attempt on the part of Enrile or his lawyers to pretend that he will spend substantial time at home or in a place of his choosing to recover from the ordeal of his detention; it’s as if, when the happy news spread after the decision was announced (it was the second Supreme Court ruling favorable to him in as many weeks), the reasons Enrile used to enjoy the privilege of hospital detention were forgotten.

A farce!, people commented on social media. And who can blame them? Isn’t it only fair to conclude that Enrile, apparently fit to report to work immediately, used the privilege of hospital detention to his personal advantage?

The decision of the Sandiganbayan, made on Tuesday, to open its offices the following day, a holiday in Quezon City, may have been made out of good intentions, but in fact it was just another privilege freely extended to favor Enrile.

Courts as a rule are not open on holidays and weekends; the fact that the Sandiganbayan offered to disregard the holiday, in case the Supreme Court decision was released on Wednesday, can be understood as a courtesy. We should not allow a person who has been released from detention, even though only provisionally, to spend a minute longer behind bars. But: Would that all our courts were as solicitous to those accused who are not wealthy senators from powerful families.

The high court’s decision to grant Enrile’s petition—to post bail for the nonbailable offense of plunder—accepts the senator’s argument that at 91 he cannot be considered a flight risk, and that the charges he faced “cannot be considered a capital offense” because, even if he is found guilty, his age and the fact that he voluntarily surrendered would mean that he cannot be meted the maximum penalty of life imprisonment.

It is interesting to note that, even before the high court released copies of its ruling, Enrile’s fellow senators already hailed the decision as trailblazing. For instance, Sen. Francis Escudero told a TV network: “This is a seminal and precedent-setting decision on the right to bail given the unique theory used by Senator Enrile.”

It is certainly unique, because the heart of Enrile’s case lies not in emphasizing his old age and frail health but in challenging the very concept of prima facie evidence, the cornerstone of our prosecutorial system: One of only two exceptions allowing the accused to post bail even in nonbailable crimes involves the presence of “strong evidence of guilt.” Enrile’s challenge is that the evidence can be found strong (or not) only by the court, and only after the prosecution has finished presenting its evidence.

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In this view, no person accused of capital crimes can be detained on the basis of a prima facie finding of “strong evidence of guilt.” It has to be the court to make the determination.

This is legal acrobatics pure and simple—and yet another example of the readiness of solicitous government institutions to offer Enrile and others like him favor, courtesy, privilege.

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TAGS: Juan Ponce Enrile, plunder, pork barrel scam, provisional release
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