A half-full glass

We sometimes believe we have seen enough of what is happening to our country to make us think of it in the worst possible way.  The behavior of some people in our midst can often be so brazen that we find ourselves engulfed by a recurring sense of a society spinning out of control.

We tend not to see the daily struggles waged by ordinary people to uphold the institutional norms of a modern society against enormous pressure to do otherwise.  The effort it takes to go against the habits of an unequal society can be no less heroic than dying for one’s country, yet this form of active citizenship too often passes largely unnoticed.  From my vantage point, what I see is far from satisfactory, but I see a half-full glass slowly filling up rather than a half-empty one fast running out.  This counter-intuitive insight has come to me ironically while reflecting on the three high-profile cases that have hit the headlines in the past week.

In many ways, the Jalosjos rape case, the Subic rape case, and the Dacer-Corbito murder case have tested, and continue to test, the strength of our legal system – its capacity to withstand external pressure and resolve cases according to its own distinct rationality. And what we have seen is not always dismaying.  The convicted child rapist, former Congressman Romeo Jalosjos, has indeed walked out of prison a free man after serving only 11 years of an original doublelife jail term.  But, let us not forget that bringing this well-connected politician to justice was in itself an improbable thing.  No one in the political establishment wanted him in jail.  They did not think that what he did to his 11-year-old victim was rape.  His political allies did everything to shorten his prison stay, starting with President Arroyo who commuted his two life terms to 16 years.

Unfortunately for Jalosjos, there are lawyers like Katrina Legarda who take their profession seriously, and who doggedly protected the girl’s interests. It also made a lot of difference that we have a mass media that did not hesitate to focus public attention on the case from the perspective of children’s rights.  As a result, the courts could ignore the political pressure.  It is not everyday that justice could prevail over political influence in a patronage-based society like ours.

One can say the same thing of the Subic rape case.  Here the accused is not a powerful individual like ex-Congressman Jalosjos. But Lance Corporal Daniel Smith is no ordinary mortal either.  He was a member of the visiting American military contingent, allowed into our country on the strength of a bilateral agreement between the Philippines and the US.  The circumstances that brought him to the Philippines on that fateful day in Subic when he raped the Filipino woman “Nicole” invested him with the aura of his country’s power.

In a less democratic society, there would have been no way someone like Daniel Smith could be indicted, tried, and actually convicted by a local court.  Political considerations – diplomatic and security interests – would have intruded from the start to prevent the incident from becoming a full-blown case.  There were attempts to exert that kind of pressure. But they did not prosper because of lawyers like Evalyn Ursua who never wavered in her quest for justice for the victim, and there were women’s groups that made sure that Nicole’s fight would not be a lonely one.  As a result, someone like Judge Pozon could close his ears to the diplomatic and political noise and focus entirely on the legal merits of the case.

As we all know, Smith has appealed his conviction.  From his makeshift detention cell in the US embassy in Manila, the American soldier awaits the court’s ruling on his appeal. Recently, the Supreme Court ordered that he be moved to a detention facility supervised by Philippine authorities.  This development has highlighted the onesidedness of the Visiting Forces Agreement, fuelling renewed calls for the abrogation of the agreement.  This case has placed both the Philippine and the US governments in an embarrassing situation. Both desire the immediate release of the inconvenient detainee, but they can only do so within the parameters of the Philippine legal system.  That is the reason for the recent affidavit of Nicole, where she casts doubt on her own earlier testimony.  This may not be admitted as new evidence, but it does create a suitable environment in which the appellate court can feel justified to grant Smith’s appeal.

The Court of Appeals may tacitly acknowledge the content of Nicole’s affidavit and use it as a moral warrant to release Smith on legal grounds. Or, it can decide to ignore this second affidavit, treating it as nothing more than a document crafted by lawyers precisely to relativize truth, and signed by the victim, without her lawyer, under the duress of a pressing need.  The autonomy of the court will be sharply tested here.  The final outcome may not be to our liking, but it is worth remembering that going this far on a case like this is not a mean achievement in itself.  When law makes it hard for power to have its way — that is progress.

Far less certain seems to be the fate of the Dacer-Corbito murder case.  This case is caught between the pincers of two opposing political camps – a governing bloc that is fast approaching the end of its rule and an opposition bloc that cannot wait to return to power. The political stakes are high, and the legal processes are actively being manipulated.  Perhaps, of the three cases discussed here, it is the Dacer-Corbito that best reminds us how half-empty the glass still is.

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