A Boholano’s View:Ex-President GMA, P-Noy, Politics and the Rule of Law

The Bohol Chronicle (18 Nov 2011)

By: Jose V. Abueva

Charges vs Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. In his presidential campaign in 2010 Senator Benigno S. Aquino III focused on the alleged corruption and abuse of power of President GMA and promised to fight corruption as the centerpiece of his presidency: “Kung walang corrupt, walang mahirap!”

He made it clear that he would make GMA pay for her glaring misdeeds as president to symbolize and concretize his determination to enforce the rule of law on everyone, without exception. P-Noy was capitalizing on the GMA’s questioned legitimacy and tarnished reputation in her nine-year presidency.

It took the P-Noy administration more than a year to organize its charges against GMA for corruption, plunder, and then lately electoral sabotage during the 2007 elections. In fact the charges had not been filed in court when Justice Secretary Leila de Lima issued a memorandum order to prevent the departure of Representative GMA, so she could seek medical treatment abroad for her ailment.

On the Arroyos’ appeal against the memorandum order, the Supreme Court issued a Temporary Restraining Order with immediate effect to allow Mrs. Arroyo to go abroad. But the Justice Secretary ordered the Bureau of Immigration and the airport authorities to prevent her departure, against the high court’s TRO. She said that she had not seen a copy of the TRO which was the subject of extensive media coverage.

The issues. Before this action of the administration, in the face of the TRO, the issue of Rep. Arroyo’s departure to seek medical treatment abroad was argued along these lines. She had her constitutional right to life which is also a high human value in our society. She was entitled to get the medical treatment she wanted. She was constitutionally presumed to be innocent unless proved guilty under due legal process. Her constitutional freedom to travel could be prevented only in the interest of national security, public safety, and public health, and these did not apply to her. There were no charges made in court against her that were non-bailable and therefore warranted forcing her to remain in the country. Nonetheless, the Arroyos posted a two-million-peso bail.

The Justice Secretary and other administration officials, with P-Noy’s evident support, were prepared to defy the Supreme Court’s TRO as a tactical move so that they could rush the filing of the non-bailable charges of plunder and electoral sabotage that would justify the prevention of the departure of Representative GMA. Meanwhile, having prevented GMA’s departure the Justice Secretary appealed to the high court to reconsider its TRO.

Then she and COMELEC Chairman Sixto Brillantes were able to have the charges filed at the Pasig Regional Trial Court. The Aquino administration is afraid that the Arroyos would not return to the country to answer the charges against them. In fact, the media published reports that the Arroyos were seeking asylum in the Dominican Republic, which were denied by its government.

The Arroyos and P-Noy and his administration were invoking justice and the rule of law as their main concern in the disputed foreign travel of Representative GMA.

Constitutional crisis? The Supreme Court met en banc to deal with its TRO that had been deliberately defied, as well as other pressing issues before it. The defiance of its TRO by the Executive Branch raises a grave constitutional issue of the supremacy of the Supreme Court in regard to legal and constitutional issues in our system of separation of powers among the Executive, the Legislature, and the Judiciary. Without the rule of law, our citizens are insecure in their constitutional rights, and we do not have a democratic State.

Opinion and the stakes. In his column in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, Fr. Joaquin Bernas, S.J., constitutionalist, and a framer of the 1987 Constitution, asked “Where is the President in all these?” He meant P-Noy had ordered and approved all the moves of his administration to ensure that Representative GMA remains in the country to face the charges against her. Fr. Bernas believes that the government is not so helpless in getting hold of the Arroyos should they try to evade the charges against them by staying abroad.

For P-Noy GMA’s conviction in court would be his signal political victory as an avowed champion of honest governance and nemeses against corruption. And her absolution from the charges of corruption, plunder, and electoral sabotage would be GMA’s political vindication as the leader most criticized for allegedly “lying, cheating and stealing” in office. So their political stakes are very high indeed.

Fellow Inquirer columnist Amando Doronila wrote about “P-Noy’s creeping authoritarianism.” GMA’s partisans and some clergy support GMA, while other politicians, columnists and commentators side with the Aquino administration.

GMA arrested. Friday evening, November 19, Mrs. Arroyo was served a warrant of arrest by the Pasig RTC in her room at St. Luke’s Hospital in Bonifacio Global City. The next day she was to be finger-printed and photographed as a prisoner. However, she would be allowed to remain in the hospital or be under “home arrest.”

Former COMELEC Inspector Lintang Bedol and former ARRM Governor Andal Ampatuan, Sr. were also served warrants of arrest for allegedly being implicated in electoral sabotage during the 2007 senatorial elections with Mrs. Arroyo.

The Supreme Court reiterated that its TRO against Mrs. Arroyo’s travel holdover remained in force. However, this was rendered moot because the non-bailable charges against her had been filed in court and she had been placed under arrest.

De Lima in contempt of the Supreme Court? What will the Supreme Court do to the Secretary of Justice who knowingly disobeyed the TRO against her memorandum order to prevent the departure of Mrs. Arroyo? The tribunal summoned Secretary de Lima to explain why she should not be held in contempt for her refusal to implement the TRO which “the justices deemed as disrespect of the court.”

If found guilty of indirect contempt, De Lima may be ordered to pay a fine of not more than P30,000.00 or face imprisonment of not more than six months, or both.”

Justice served? Secretary de Lima declared that justice had prevailed by preventing Mrs. Arroyo’s departure and by her arrest for the charges of corruption, plunder and electoral sabotage in 2007. The high profile and popular Secretary is reputedly a potential candidate for the Senate in 2013.

Mrs. Arroyo is contesting her arrest and detention. Her lawyers assert that the Sandigambayan, not the Pasay RTC, is the court that should handle her cases as a senior government official. And from Bali, Indonesia, where P-Noy was attending the ASEAN meeting, he ordered that she be treated with respect.

Rule of law still in question. “There are no signs that the Supreme Court or the Executive branch is backing off. But the constitutional system of checks and balance is based on the sound principle that judicial orders have to be obeyed to maintain the rule of law. They must be obeyed—even by the President. If court orders are disobeyed, no one will be safe from a presidential dictatorship.” This is the opinion of Amando Doronila.

Fr. Joaquin Bernas has expressed his opinion that the Supreme Court must be obeyed if the rule of law is to prevail.

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