The special detainee

The rule of law and the norm of equal justice are being invoked to oppose giving special treatment to the detained former president.  But the enormous security precautions deployed to ensure his safety under detention already single him out for special treatment.

We cannot treat Erap like an ordinary criminal; he is not an ordinary criminal – he was once the president of our country.  Millions of Filipinos elected him to office; he was booted out of the presidency by an extraordinary political act whose validity continues to be questioned by his legion of supporters to this day.

The circumstances in which he has been criminally charged straddle the political and the legal.  Keeping him under detention while he undergoes trial is not just a way of preventing his escape.  It is also, from a political standpoint, a way of restricting his movement and rendering him incapable of effectively mobilizing his supporters against the government.  The trial is thus also the continuation of a revolutionary act.

But because the new administration is not a revolutionary government, it must abide by the Constitution and follow the rules governing persons accused of crimes.  This is the sphere of the judiciary, not of presidential authority.  During Martial Law, Marcos placed a number of people in military detention cells or under house arrest without bothering to file charges against them. He was able to do this because his government functioned, in effect, like a revolutionary government.  President Macapagal-Arroyo does not enjoy the same prerogative; she would do well therefore not to second-guess the judiciary, a co-equal branch of the presidency.

It is up to the Sandiganbayan Court to decide how best to secure the former president during the trial.  We should not forget that he has not been convicted, and therefore he must be accorded the presumption of innocence and all the rights due to persons in his place.  If a special detention facility has to be built to accommodate him, that is the Court’s prerogative, not Malacanang’s.  It is a small price we must pay for doing something we have never done before – arrest a former president.  If the Court decides to grant him house arrest status instead, as Erap’s lawyers have requested, so be it.  The justices must however fully justify this to the public, especially in light of what happened on Polk Street, North Greenhills the day he was arrested.

If the former president is ill and his treatment requires confinement at a hospital for a period of time, I do not think our people will object to granting him that.  But to convert one whole wing of a public hospital into a detention cell or to construct a home for a VIP detainee inside hospital grounds for the duration of the trial seems the height of absurdity.  Not only does it deprive ordinary patients of scarce hospital space, it also places the lives of the medical personnel and patients unduly at risk.

As foolish as confining Erap to a hospital room, however, is the idea of putting him in jail with other prisoners at the Manila City Jail.  That prison cannot even humanely accommodate its existing inmates. More importantly, any fool wanting to make a name for himself can assassinate him and plunge the whole country in political limbo.

An adequately furnished detention cell inside Camp Crame, Camp Aguinaldo or Fort Bonifacio would have been ideal.  The government cannot ignore the security risks it has to deal with in detaining the former president.  The Philippine National Police detention facility in Sta. Rosa Laguna looks vulnerable from the air.  It is also too far from the Sandiganbayan where the trial is going to be held.

I think we have spent enough time debating where to detain Erap. More important than this is ensuring that he gets a fair and credible trial. The country’s best trial lawyers are on hand to defend him with all the passion and intelligence they can summon. The government and private prosecutors must do no less; they must present and argue the cases against him as unequivocally and as competently as possible.   For, this trial will carry the same legal and political import as the investigation into the assassination of former Senator Ninoy Aquino.  Its conduct and outcome will determine the future course of our national life no less.

The dramatic events that rocked our country in the last eight months remain fresh in our people’s imagination.  They continue to feed a lingering apprehension.  This is a trial we must all go through, a chance at a proper closure, a duty we were unable to carry out in 1986 when we failed to indict and try Marcos.  Therefore, our people deserve to be present at the courtroom during the trial, to bear witness, if not to the nation’s folly, then to the beginning of its redemption.  Television cameras must do this for us.  The experience will not only be educational; it will, above all, be cleansing.

Fate singled out Erap to become the president who would give hope to the Filipino poor.  They gave him power; he fed them illusions. They clung to him like a hero and savior, he treated them like movie extras.  He betrayed them, yet they have continued to love him.  We cannot treat this man like an ordinary accused.  He represents the old culture that is dying; on trial is the new that cannot be born.


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