COMMENT: Will Arroyo do a Bush?

What did U.S. President George W. Bush do? 

Last July 2, just hours after L. Lewis Libby Jr. had been sentenced to 30 months for perjury and obstruction of justice, Bush, believing that the penalty was excessive, commuted his sentence, The New York Times reported. He ignored the panel of judges’ ruling that Libby could not put off serving his sentence while his conviction was on appeal. 

By the terms of the commutation, Libby will not spend time in prison but he will still pay a $250,000 fine and be on probation for the two years and six months he is supposed to serve.  Should Libby win in his appeal, his fine and probation will be completely erased – winning back his innocence.  

Who is Libby to deserve such speedy presidential clemency? He was chief of staff of Vice President Dick Cheney when he was accused of the twin crimes for lying to the Federal Bureau of Investigation agents and a grand jury investigating the 2003 Central Intelligence Agency leak case. He was convicted last March. 

Will President Arroyo commute the sentence of former President Joseph Estrada should the Sandiganbayan convict him or, more than Bush did, pardon him? 

The Sandigabayan has until September 15 to promulgate its decision but speculations are now heating up. Estrada certain of pressure from Malacañang to convict him is praying for “the rule of law, not of politics” to prevail. Malacañang, professing strict neutrality, is preparing to cope with adverse reactions either way the verdict goes. 

Bush had personal reasons for commuting Libby’s sentence. What motive has Arroyo to grant Estrada clemency should he be convicted?  Even if sincere, whatever be her motive and however best the effort, she is bound to be flayed by pro- and anti-Estrada partisans. 

Will she pursue reconciliation for national interest?  This has been repeatedly offered and subsequently rejected. If Estrada is convicted of plunder – a grand corruption — why reconcile with the corrupt?  Corruption is never for national interest.   

Will she exercise her clemency power to prevent unrest?  If she does that, she will surrender justice premised on fair and just conviction to violence at the great sacrifice of the Philippine justice system.  

Is the President not obliged to prevent violence and the possible loss of lives and property? But upholding right over wrong and standing by the rule of law is a more paramount obligation of any President.  

Clemency, an act of forgiveness after conviction, is an indirect way to make Estrada admit the crime he has never admitted. But Estrada said, if found guilty, he would refuse clemency from Arroyo: “I did nothing wrong.” (INQUIRER.net, July 5) There is no way to make him admit. 

Any act of clemency by Arroyo toward Estrada will be historic irony and paradox. Clemency is unwelcome and can mean a mea culpa by the Arroyo government. That’s the irony.  

Clemency can also mean the unwillingness of the state to enforce the punishment for crime fairly and justly meted by its court. Why then prosecute at a great expense of state funds and time if there has been no intention to punish the accused upon conviction? That’s the paradox. 

But why speculate on Arroyo doing a Bush? Isn’t that jumping the gun on Sandiganbayan? 

The pro- and anti-Estrada partisans are tensely speculating. That one-page ad in six national broadsheets last July 4 gave away the tension. What did the ad say? “Erap: Guilty or Not Guilty. Kailangan bang may gulo? [Should there be trouble?] Then, the final appeal: “Let the rule of law prevail.”  

The 7-paragraph ad of 15 sentences and 124 words appeals to all to abide by the decision of Sandiganbayan, “to uphold the rule of law” and “the way of democracy,” to “stand firm against” those “who may exploit [the decision] to sow discord and destabilize the country,” to “unite” in “the spirit that should prevail for the sake of peace and harmony in the face of the challenge that confronts us now” and to “put Erap’s case behind us and move on”. 

The ad, as ads go, conditions the mind either way the verdict goes – for the pro-Estradas to accept “Guilty” and for the anti-Estradas to accept “Not Guilty.” That the language and message sound familiar does not necessarily mean it was put up at the behest of Malacañang. 

Have the pro-Estrada partisans a motive to publish such an ad? 

An ad that in message and language sounds like the familiar Malacañang propaganda gives Estrada and his loyalists the excuse to warn of violent unrest should the verdict be “Guilty.” Estrada says he is certain Sandiganbayan is under pressure to convict him. 

Lawyer Estelito Mendoza, Estrada’s lead counsel, expresses his apprehension of his client’s conviction because the three justices handling the case are Arroyo’s appointees and two of them are nominees for the Supreme Court.  While he has confidence in the court, he is aware of the “heavy burden” weighing on the justices to convict. 

Mayor J. V. Ejercito of San Juan, son of Estrada, has warned of violence should his father be convicted.  These misgivings and warnings condition the minds of Estrada loyalists and militants.  Can these influence the verdict?  Good question.  

Estrada’s belief that he will not get justice from Sandiganbayan dates six years back when he believed that he would not get a fair trial despite his innocence. He did not consider the many special treatments accorded to him as favors but privileges owed to him as president. It would not be surprising if he thinks that justice is no less than his acquittal as a privilege. 

Has Malacañang a motive to put up such an ad?

Since Estrada’s arrest, the President has been conciliatory to him.  It is hard to believe that the special treatments given to Estrada as courtesy to his being president have not been without the intercession of Malacañang. 

Left alone, Sandiganbayan should have followed the constitutional mandate of equality before the law.  When accused of plunder, Estrada forfeited his presidential rights and privileges and should have been treated like any other accused.  But, no, he was treated differently. 

Had Estrada not been given special privileges, he would have languished in jail like President and later Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto of Pakistan until he was hanged; or like two South Korean presidents – Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo — until they were pardoned.  As accused and convicts, they were equal before their country’s laws with any other criminal.    

It would not be a surprise if Sandiganbayan will temper justice with Malacañang’s conciliatory attitude toward Estrada in the name of reconciliation for national stability. The ad was to test the anti-Estrada waters. 

The ad was also for the pro-Estrada partisans to accept the possibility of “Guilty” verdict but with the past favors and conciliatory gestures from Malacañang as a reminder that if Estrada is convicted, the President will pardon him.  Estrada himself expects this for he said he would not accept clemency because he had done nothing wrong. 

The ad foresees trouble either way the verdict goes. I think, in case of “Guilty,” the real question is rather: “Should Arroyo do a Bush?”  (“Comment" is Mr. Patricio P. Diaz' column for MindaViews, the opinion section of MindaNews. Mr. Diaz is the recipient of a “Lifetime Achievement Award” from the Titus Brandsma for his "commitment to education and public information to Mindanawons as Journalist, Educator and Peace Advocate." You may e-mail your comments to [email protected]This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it )

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