Erap’s complains that he has been singled out and offered as an exhibit by the ruling elite to show that justice works in this country and that wrongdoing will not go unpunished. He is being cast, he says, in the role of the proverbial big fish that will not get away.
They – big business, the media, the Church — are doing this, according to him, because they want to put him away so that he can no longer be a political threat. They could not stop his election to the presidency, he says, so they conspired to bring him down using people power. They could not tolerate him because he refused to do their bidding. Thrice they prodded him to go on voluntary exile, but he turned them down on the belief that his ouster was unconstitutional and that he should clear his name.
But how can he clear his name? A separate division of the Sandiganbayan, with handpicked judges, has been especially created to try him. His trial is being rushed so that he can be convicted before the 2004 election. Sure, he may appeal to the Supreme Court, but the members of the highest court had three times upheld the legality of his exit from the presidency and the succession of his vice-president, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. How can he expect them to pronounce him innocent without putting in question the legitimacy of the present government?
It is a plausible story, and its appeal to the masa cannot be underestimated. However, it must be countered with reason, and not with those sentimental supplications and maudlin references to family values that President Macapagal-Arroyo’s recent tear-jerkers on TV exemplify. The masa are not stupid; in the age of confessional television, they can tell a gimmick from a genuine act. Let’s give them arguments, not mush.
Erap is hardly the underdog he portrays himself to be. He has hired the finest defense panel that money can buy. Two of his lawyers are former justices of the Supreme Court, one is a former senator, a number are professors of law, and the rest are seasoned trial lawyers. They know their client’s case intimately and they are familiar with the political context in which it is entangled. They are very articulate and they can shift from the legal to the political terrain with ease.
It was the same group of lawyers that argued against the legitimacy of the Macapagal-Arroyo presidency and the constitutionality of the Anti-plunder Law before the Supreme Court. In both instances, the Court ruled with finality against their client. If Erap thought that the Court was incapable of rendering justice because the partisan actions of the justices at Edsa 2 had compromised their sense of fairness, he should not have submitted himself to the its authority. From the very outset, he should have challenged the neutrality of the justices and the entire political regime whose birth they sanctified by their presence at the Edsa Shrine. The tribunal to resolve that challenge would have been the streets, not the Supreme Court.
Indeed a reckless attempt at a political resolution was made at Mendiola in May 2001. That rebellion was crushed. If the pro-Erap forces had prevailed at Mendiola, or if they had won a clear majority in the May elections, it is unlikely that Erap would be on trial today. His trial for plunder is a direct result of his political defeat. Erap’s followers in the streets may continue to test the finality of their idol’s downfall until they find a new hero. But Erap’s friends in Congress must decide whether they want to be revolutionaries or public officials.
The trial of Erap must continue and come to a definite conclusion, with or without his cooperation. The venerable former Senator Jovito Salonga has thoroughly explained why the Supreme Court had to create a special division of the Sandiganbayan to hear the cases against the former president. The work of two regular divisions of the Sandiganbayan previously assigned to handle the Erap cases had been hampered by the suspension of Presiding Justice Francis Garchitorena and the withdrawal of Justice Anacleto Badoy who went on sick leave. Some justices had also recused themselves for a variety of reasons. The Supreme Court was left with no choice but to create a special division and to rely on its collective wisdom in choosing the members of this division from the remaining justices.
Erap and his lawyers have accused this special division of extreme bias. The only way the public can know whether there is any basis for this accusation is by opening the trial to public viewing. Yet, Erap’s lawyers have firmly opposed a public trial for their client. Let the nation see for itself how justice works in practice. A televised trial will not only be educational, it will also have an affirming effect on the efficacy of democracy as a way of life.
There are great risks involved, of course. Any perception of miscarriage of justice at any point in the trial may unleash another political upheaval, and this time, it could be violent and prolonged. But the risks are worth taking.
Our country finds itself again at a point where it can either move forward and embark on a new journey toward modern nationhood, or slink back to the opportunism of an uneasy truce between the old and the new. There is no justice in the latter, only endless compromise.
No law, only politics. We cannot live like that and remain a nation.
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