BEFORE discussing the headline topic, a word on ongoing news reports about the planned talks between China and the Philippines on South China Sea issues:
This week media carried reports that Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay said the bilaterals would not push through just yet.
Reason: His Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, rejected his proposal to include in the agenda the July 12 Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling that China’s “nine-dash line” claim over most of the South China Sea violated the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
Now, media tends to look for decisive or aggressive angles in official statements, like talks starting or stopping, and big contentious issues erupting or resolving. That’s especially so in the maritime frictions between the Philippines and China, where media has latched onto the David-Goliath narrative and likes to see Manila take on Beijing.
That’s why some reports wondered why Yasay called for sobriety after the PCA ruling, rather than cheering in victory. In fact, with China bitter over the whole case, a measured statement was the prudent response that was also more conducive to the conciliatory talks President Rodrigo Duterte wanted.
Besides certain media, the West and Japan are also keen to play up Sino-Philippine frictions, which portray the Chinese as bully and prod Filipinos to run to their allies—and allow increased allied military deployment and access to their vast, strategically situated archipelago.
Now, here’s the Yasay statement after meeting Wang at the sidelines of the Asia-Europe Summit, in Mongolia: “At this point in time, I am not sure whether negotiations can be pursued. Let the dust settle some more and let’s see how we can open up the road for this kind of negotiation.”
Depending on one’s perspective and interests in Sino-Philippine tensions, the Yasay remark was either a half-empty glass running down to zero talks, or a quarter-full one which both sides are just starting to fill up under bilaterals-friendly Philippine leader.
But what should tip the unbiased reporter toward the quarter-full view are certain plain facts. First, preliminaries toward talks have just begun, so there will be much posturing and zigzagging before anything substantial happens.
Both foreign ministers have yet to get their bosses’ thoughts on their Mongolia encounter. And on Yasay’s part, he had yet to speak with former President Fidel Ramos, designated by Duterte to help set up talks.
So let’s be careful in reading news reports about the very new, but presidentially-driven effort for negotiations to resolve maritime issues between China and the Philippines.
With Aquino out, so is Arroyo
Both the Yasay story and former President Gloria Arroyo’s acquittal involve major Aquino thrusts now being reviewed, if not reversed: the hardline stance toward China and the prosecution of Arroyo, purportedly as centerpiece of Aquino’s anti-graft program.
Aquino and his media allies have long claimed that Arroyo presided over gross corruption, and Aquino was bringing her to justice. The Arroyo camp has maintained that she is innocent and was unjustly detained.
Initial reports just noted the decision, then listed which justices voted for and against it. But spins and slants are coming. So it’s good to recall facts of the case, which may be dropped or distorted, depending on which camp one is in.
The case alleges a conspiracy to plunder state funds in misusing P366 million in intelligence funds of the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office. The charges followed a 2011 Senate hearing in which an Arroyo-era PCSO general manager stated how such funds were used.
A preliminary investigation by a panel of Ombudsman lawyers found no evidence of plunder, since no funds went to any of the accused, including Arroyo. But Aquino-appointed Ombudsman Conchita-Carpio Morales ordered another probe, which recommended filing charges.
The anti-graft court Sandiganbayan ordered Arroyo arrested in Oct. 2012.The previous July, an earlier non-bailable charge of electoral sabotage in the 2007 senatorial polls was deemed weak, leading to Arroyo’s release on bail. The sole witness against her admitted receiving immunity from prosecution.
Over the years, nearly all co-accused in the PCSO case were exonerated or granted bail, due to weak evidence. Only Arroyo and a PCSO budget officer were detained until the Supreme Court ruling this week.
In conspiracy cases, it is a norm that if evidence is deemed weak against some of the accused, it leads to the release of all. This judicial norm was set aside in keeping Arroyo detained after most of her co-accused were freed.
Sandiganbayan insiders recounted that Aquino called up justices in Arroyo’s case when her bail petition came up for voting. One was offered a Supreme Court appointment, but never got it.
If legal convention was set aside in denying Arroyo bail, the Plunder Law itself was apparently stretched in rejecting her petition to dismiss the case for lack of evidence.
In the ruling against her petition for demurer, the anti-graft court argued that plunder could be committed even if no money went to the accused.
This despite the definition of plunder as amassing, accumulating, or acquiring ill-gotten wealth worth P50 million or more.
Raising some of those issues with the UN Human Rights Council, international lawyer Amal Clooney obtained a ruling that Arroyo’s detention was politically motivated.
The body called for her release, and even ruled that she had the right to seek compensation for her detention, which adversely affected her health.
Arroyo suffers from a misaligned titanium implant in her neck spine, which could cause food to get lodged in her throat, possibly choking her.
With both ball and demurer denied, Arroyo appealed last year to the Supreme Court, which issued a restraining order stopping her trial while her petitions are deliberated.
This month the magistrates voted 11-4 to grant the demurer and dismiss her case. The decision is immediately executory, and the Pampanga representative, who won her third term, went home yesterday.
Readers are invited to go online and post any missing information. And we join Arroyo, her family and friends in thanking the Almighty, the Supreme Court, and the new administration for justice at last.
Let’s hope this kind of unjust and un-Christian treatment does not happen again to any other Filipino.