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By the SC, not by the UN

The United Nations (UN) Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD) was widely reported to have opined that “the detention of former President [Gloria Macapagal] Arroyo (GMA) was arbitrary and illegal under international law … with an enforceable right to compensation.”

Bail denied. Commenting on this opinion obtained by international celebrity lawyer Amal Alamuddin Clooney, Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr. said that GMA “has been accorded due process and has availed herself of various legal remedies … in Philippine courts, which have sole jurisdiction to decide on such matters.”

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And may I add that the controversy is about a mere “opinion” of a UN “working group” which does not have the coercive power of a treaty, or a customary international law, or a decision made after trial and hearing of an international tribunal like the International Court of Justice, or the International Criminal Court, or of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, where the Philippine claim in the West Philippine Sea is being heard.

GMA faces two major suits: (1) electoral sabotage, a capital offense, in the regional trial court (RTC) of Pasay for her alleged role in the manipulation of the 2007 election results in Maguindanao, and (2) plunder, also a capital offense, in the Sandiganbayan (SBN) for her alleged participation in the illegal use of P366 million in funds of the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office (PCSO).

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She was granted bail by the RTC (affirmed by the Court of Appeals) because the prosecution failed to prove that “the evidence of guilt is strong.” However, the SBN denied her plea for bail in the PCSO case.

After the prosecution finished presenting its evidence in the PCSO case, the defense filed a “demurrer” on the ground that the evidence presented had failed to prove GMA’s guilt beyond reasonable doubt.

Demurrer also denied. However, a Special SBN Division of five, voting 3-2, denied the demurrer and ruled that the prosecution has proven her guilt beyond reasonable doubt, and asked her to present countervailing evidence. Otherwise, she would be at risk of conviction.

Significantly, and this was noted in the WGAD opinion, the demurrer of her four coaccused (former PCSO chair Manuel Morato, former PCSO board members Raymundo Roquero and Jose Taruc, and former Commission on Audit chair Reynaldo Villar) was granted, resulting in their acquittal.

The charge against another coaccused, former PCSO chair Sergio Valencia, was downgraded to malversation. Since this is not a capital offense, he was allowed to post a bail bond of P500,000. Only GMA and another coaccused, former PCSO executive Benigno Aguas, were neither acquitted nor granted bail.

Failing in her bid for demurrer and bail, GMA filed a motion in the SBN to change her confinement from the Veterans Memorial Medical Center to her home at 14 Badjao Street, La Vista, Quezon City. In view of the recent WGAD opinion, she is renewing her plea for bail.

Equal protection. I believe, however, that more compelling than the WGAD opinion—which, as Coloma correctly pointed out, is not binding on our judiciary—is the recent Supreme Court decision (Ponce Enrile vs Sandiganbayan, Aug. 18, 2015) granting bail to Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile.

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Bail was allowed, not because the prosecution (the Office of the Ombudsman) failed to present “strong” evidence of guilt, but because of (1) Enrile’s “fragile” health (uncontrolled hypertension, arrhythmia, coronary calcifications, and exacerbations of asthma-COPD overlap syndrome) and (2) advanced age (“already over 70 years old at the time of the alleged commission of the offense”).

Veering away from “strong evidence of guilt” as the only constitutionally-mandated ground to grant bail in capital offenses, the Court said that the SBN “arbitrarily ignored the objective of bail to ensure the appearance of the accused during the trial…”

True, this 8-4 decision was heavily criticized by the dissenting opinion of Justice Marvic M.V.F. Leonen. However, whether we agree with it or not, once affirmed to be final (through a denial of the pending motion for reconsideration), it becomes a binding precedent.

Citing the equal protection of the law, GMA’s lawyers could obtain bail if they can show that, like Enrile, she is not a flight risk because of her fragile health and advanced age.

Ineluctably, GMA could secure her longed-for temporary liberty because of that Supreme Court decision, not of the much-publicized WGAD opinion.

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Congratulations to my high school chum, Filemon T. Berba Jr. for his book, “Leadership for Extraordinary Results.” Of the 1,200 graduates of

Mapa High School in 1954, Berba was indisputably the best in math. His phenomenal grasp of how numbers computed and the amazing speed by which he figured them out was enough inspiration for me to aspire to be a chemical engineer. But my strong-willed father compelled me to be a lawyer.

In my profession of law, I have tried to become not just a legal technician who tinkers with and repairs legal imperfections. I have also tried to be a social engineer who helps build our nation, with law as my basic tool. So, even in my sunset years, I still strive to be the engineer that Jun Berba inspired me to be when we were just carving our lives in high school.

Acclaimed by his peers during the book launching a few days ago, he has rightfully become the top honcho—the “chief justice,” as it were—of his engineering-management profession. Cheers!

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TAGS: Court of Appeals, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, Herminio Coloma Jr., Supreme Court, United Nations, United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention
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