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Impunity

Among the reasons cited by the protesters still (as of this writing) gathered in front of the Department of Justice building is the need to uphold the “separation of church and state.”

The protesters, members of the Iglesia ni Cristo, were referring to what they deemed the “extraordinary” interest and involvement of Justice Secretary Leila de Lima in the filing of a case of illegal detention, threats and coercion by expelled INC minister Isaias Samson and his family. In interviews, Samson accused members of the council or sanggunian, the governing body of the church, of dispatching security people to keep watch over their residence, confiscating their passports, and monitoring their movements. He also denied knowing De Lima personally or meeting with her.

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Apparently, the INC leadership believes that any show of interest in the case, which revolves around accusations of corruption against some leaders of the church, constitutes “meddling” in their affairs. They even condemned some journalists for consistently following up the story, even after the church leaders had issued a bulletin saying they were conducting an internal investigation into the matter. But how could the investigation produce credible results when the leaders who ordered it are themselves among those implicated?

“Separation of church and state” is contained in the 1987 Constitution which declares that the “separation of church and state shall be inviolable.” This is further explained in another section which states that “No law shall be made respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. The free exercise and enjoyment of religious profession and worship, without discrimination or preference, shall forever be allowed. No religious test shall be required for the exercise of civil or political rights.”

Clearly, the constitutional provisions refer specifically to the state, to prevent it from favoring or persecuting a religion or religious body. But the question we must answer is: Does allowing the filing of criminal (or even civil) charges against church leaders constitute religious persecution? If Secretary

De Lima, if she is so inclined, decides to dismiss the case outright, would that not constitute an extraordinary accommodation for the INC leaders?

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The INC has gained considerable political clout mainly because of the practice of “block voting,” dictating the choice of candidates that their members would vote for, an order that the majority of their claimed membership of

2 million apparently follows.

In exchange for this crucial support, especially at the local level, the INC leverages its influence to have favored members appointed to key positions in government, particularly in revenue-generating bodies. There has even been some speculation that pressure may have been exerted on certain officials to fire or demote their underlings who dared to cross the influential body.

This may explain why law enforcers seemed to drag their feet in pursuing the case when the initial accusations surfaced. It had been alleged that the INC council had illegally detained or dismissed several ministers, including the brother and mother of the current INC head, whom they suspected of publicly revealing the alleged anomalies. Police did visit the INC headquarters to inquire after the allegedly detained ministers, but left after receiving assurances that the ministers were safe. Indeed, some ministers surfaced days later to deny the story. The INC leadership obviously hoped to sweep the controversy under the rug by issuing a virtual gag order on its members and assuring that it was investigating the mess.

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But by calling on its members to fill the streets around the DOJ and even, as they threatened, bring their numbers to Edsa, is not the INC itself breaching the “wall” between church and state, using its influence to subvert legal processes and acting with impunity? Who’s interfering with whom now?

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Another case of impunity is that of Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile, who was detained on charges of plunder (which is nonbailable) but was released from “hospital arrest” on orders of a majority of the Supreme Court justices.

In his dissenting opinion, Justice Marvic Leonen described the majority decision as one of “accommodation,” allegedly on humanitarian grounds. Leonen even accused the  ponente, Justice Lucas Bersamin, of deception, saying he sprung the final form of the decision without warning his fellow justices.

In a later interview, Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, who joined Leonen and two other justices in the dissent, said she agreed with Leonen’s position and said the case had not yet been decided with finality as a motion for reconsideration could still be filed, meaning, the majority could yet change their minds.

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To my mind, the release of Enrile is clearly a show of impunity, sending the message that despite facing charges of plunder, considered a heinous crime, one could still wiggle one’s way out of responsibility for the crime. And far from his claims of being so sick he deserved hospital detention rather than a jail, Enrile showed up, apparently hale and hearty, at the Senate chambers.

And what of Bersamin, who took such offense at being called out for the legal sleight-of-hand he undertook, demanding even that Leonen be censured?

I am glad the Chief Justice spoke her mind about the Enrile case, since the majority decision could conceivably be used by other detained officials, especially former president Gloria Arroyo, to seek their own liberty.

We all clamor for an end to corruption in government, but do we stand silent in the face of such impunity in the treatment of “big fish” already caught in the net?

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