Among all the reactions by political leaders to the mass protest staged by the Iglesia ni Cristo that paralyzed Epifanio de los Santos Avenue over the long weekend, Sen. Francis Escudero had the most startling one.
Chiding Justice Secretary Leila de Lima for entertaining the complaint for serious illegal detention filed by former Iglesia minister Isaias Samson against officials of the Sanggunian, or governing council, of the INC, Escudero said: “It may be prudent to first let the leadership of the INC resolve what appears to be a purely internal matter.” “Away pamilya ito (This is a family quarrel),” he added. De Lima, in his view, should go easy on the charge and instead focus on other cases pending at the Department of Justice, such as Mamasapano.
By any measure, that is a nonsensical statement. That it came from a lawyer and a senator of the realm yet, someone expected to be among the first to champion the rule of law in these parts, makes it also a profoundly irresponsible one. Following Escudero’s logic, instances of kidnapping, detention or domestic abuse among family members should no longer require immediate attention by the police and the courts.
Likewise, the most high-profile convict in prison today on illegal detention charges shouldn’t be spending any day in jail. Janet Lim-Napoles, after all—who was found guilty of that very same offense brought against her by her kin and erstwhile business assistant, Benhur Luy—initially had a similar defense, that her tiff with Luy was a matter internal to their family and business.
Would Escudero have said the same thing if this were any obscure, ordinary case? Obviously not. The only reason he suddenly espoused a more laissez faire attitude toward a formal charge of criminal wrongdoing—an impulse that presumably runs counter to everything he had learned in law school—is that this involves the Iglesia ni Cristo, whose clout and influence as a million-plus-strong bloc-voting entity was apparently too precious a factor for the politically ambitious Escudero to set aside, never mind the law.
While Escudero’s take on INC’s muscle-flexing was the most outrageous one, its basic contempt for the legal process that De Lima was required by her position to uphold wasn’t by any means unique.
Vice President Jejomar Binay’s knee-jerk response was to frame the issue as a persecution of the INC by the Aquino government—another lawyer pandering to the INC vote while fudging the very real presence of a criminal case that, as Ateneo dean Tony La Vina wrote in an opinion piece, the DOJ was only mandated to receive as a “ministerial act that cannot otherwise be reversed upon the discretion of De Lima,” or she would be violating her oath of office.
Binay’s ill-considered statement, while disappointing, was not unexpected, given the aggressive campaign mode he’s in this early and thus the need to be in the good graces of the Iglesia. Sen. Grace Poe’s, however, was a big letdown. “Ang mga tao na yan, ang dinedepensahan nila ay ang kanilang paniniwala… Kailangan ay pangalagaan din ang kanilang karapatan (These people are fighting for their faith; their rights need to be protected),” she said.
A rousing thought—but for the fact that no doctrine, ritual or practice of the Iglesia was under attack. What, in fact, they were demanding when they massed, first in front of the DOJ office, then at EDSA, had nothing to do with religion, but with the sense of political entitlement they had enjoyed for so long from a tremulous political system addicted to their endorsements and votes: that the government leave them alone, that whatever they did to their members, even if in possible violation of the law, should remain an internal church matter beyond public scrutiny. That is their odd idea of “separation of church and state”—and Poe’s misfire of a statement only lent ballast to that faulty view.
Mar Roxas’ call for respecting the INC’s right to assemble, while also exhorting the Iglesia to respect the rights of people it had massively inconvenienced with its protest, was a nuanced, sober-minded statement. But words are words. The fine print of the “agreement” that Malacañang and the INC supposedly reached that ended the rally—which should be made public, by the way—should eventually confirm whether Roxas does stand by the law against the INC’s dangerous tantrum. Otherwise, this episode may just have proven to be a pivotal one by giving us an unexpected silver lining—all these presidential aspirants weighed and found wanting, exposed for the plain craven politicians that they are.
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