This article is supposed to be about Vatican journalist John Allen Jr.’s talk about Pope Francis. But this writer feels obliged to defer the three-part column for another subject that should also concern godly readers: the Sandiganbayan’s unkind and unlawful treatment of former President Gloria Arroyo.
Last week the antigraft court denied her petition for a few day’s home stay for her April 5 birthday, despite physicians’ testimony that rest, comfort and time with family and friends away from detention would improve her deteriorating health. This is unjust, unkind and un-Christian.
The nation should not just accept this injustice and unkindness toward an ailing human being. Then it becomes party to the abuse, as it was under dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
Filipinos then accepted rampant rights violations, including the jailing of oppositionist Benigno Aquino, Jr.
The Sandiganbayan judges should have allowed Arroyo the birthday furlough to help her health, since it would not violate the sole aim of denying bail for capital offenses: to prevent the flight of suspects likely to be convicted due to strong evidence.
To repeat: jail without bail is intended only to prevent escape, not to punish the accused, who are presumed innocent. If there is minimal chance of flight, bail should be granted.
There is nil chance of Arroyo fleeing; police can easily secure her at La Vista Subdivision, as they do alleged pork barrel operator Janet Lim Napoles on her reported morning ablutions at a house near her Laguna detention. Moreover, the plunder case against Arroyo is flimsy, so she has no reason to jump bail.
Detention sans bail, evidence and trial
Plunder requires that offenders got at least P50 million in illicit gains. But in the preliminary investigation of the purportedly purloined intelligence funds of the Philippine Charity Sweepstake Office, the Ombudsman’s first team of lawyers found that none of the accused got any PCSO money. Zero. So the panel ruled that there was no plunder.
Also rubbish was Arroyo’s previous no-bail case: the electoral sabotage charge rushed by the Commission on Elections and the Pasay City court. In November 2011, the Supreme Court restrained the Department of Justice travel ban on the former First Couple. But as President Benigno Aquino 3rd wanted and despite her lawyer’s oath to follow court decisions, Justice Secretary Leila de Lima still stopped Arroyo flying to Singapore to seek treatment.
Then the joint Comelec-DOJ investigation into the 2007 elections, itself questionable for linking the non-partisan Commission with an administration agency, promptly submitted its mammoth report to Aquino’s former election lawyer, Comelec Chair Sixto Brillantes.
He and most of his fellow commissioners approved the immediate filing of electoral sabotage charges in just over a day. And within hours of receiving voluminous stacks of case material, the Pasay court ordered the hospital-bound Arroyo arrested.
Better late than never, Judge Jesus Mupas saw through the Comelec charges in July 2012, nine months after detaining Arroyo. He heard that the only thing against her was the uncorroborated claim by former Maguindanao Provincial Administrator Norie Unas that he overheard her talk about poll cheating. There weren’t even any of the dubious vote tallies needed to show poll fraud.
Moreover, Unas, one of the principal accused for the Maguindanao Massacre of 56 people in 2009, admitted that he made his statement after being promised immunity from prosecution. Whether in mass murder, election fraud or pork barrel cases, it’s easy to imagine what people would say just to avoid life in prison.
After Judge Mupas granted bail, Aquino-appointed Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales moved to file her own unbailable charge of plunder. As noted earlier, the OMB’s own preliminary investigation found no plunder, since none of the accused got PCSO money illicitly. But former High Court justice Morales got another investigating panel to give her the ruling she wanted.
Arroyo also filed for bail in the plunder case, but was denied despite the OMB’s first finding, which was hidden from the court and defense lawyers. Meanwhile, both electoral sabotage and plunder trials are slow. After all, why should the administration hurry proceedings if weak evidence would just acquit Arroyo?
Indeed, in its scramble for testimony, the government tried to enlist respected former PCSO chairman Sergio Valencia, “but he says he cannot lie,” Philippine Star columnist Babes Romualdez recounted.
The state may not endanger anyone
Religious and political leaders have rightly urged more humane treatment of Arroyo, calling for compassion and respect toward a former head of state. Even her erstwhile critics, former president Joseph Estrada, Archbishop Oscar Cruz, and Jesus Is Lord head Eddie Villanueva, visited her last Christmas, and Cruz called for a holiday furlough for her on humanitarian grounds.
There is, moreover, an overarching constitutional reason for granting bail in view of her potentially life-threatening illness. The very first section of the Bill of Rights provides that “No person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law…”
And with the death penalty repealed, no statute allows the state to endanger anyone’s life and person, even for capital crimes.
Now when the Sandiganbayan bars Arroyo from the treatment, care and environment needed to improve her condition, it contributes to the ailment which, as doctors have attested, can threaten her life. The misaligned titanium implant in her neck bones, if left uncorrected as it is now, can inadvertently block her windpipe and prevent breathing.
That could kill her.
Corrective surgery is needed. But after three long and difficult operations in a top Philippine hospital with leading Filipino surgeons in attendance, it is not only understandable, but indispensable for Arroyo to seek treatment abroad. Would President Aquino, Ombudsman Morales, or the Sandiganbayan justices undergo a fourth operation in the country after three unsatisfactory ones?
Denying Arroyo not only needed treatment abroad, but also healing relief from detention, and enough daily sunlight to build bone — this endangers her life and well-being. It is something the state may not do even to a convicted offender, let alone an accused presumed innocent and with flimsy evidence against her.
The Marcos regime let former senator Aquino have a heart bypass operation in America, even though he was already sentenced to death. Estrada had knee surgery in Hong Kong during his plunder trial. Let’s pray that the Sandiganbayan and the administration will have the conscience and the heart to also treat an ailing grandmother turning 67 with justice, kindness, and value for life.