Arroyo holds cards in graft battle
By Joel D Adriano
MANILA - Philippine President Benigno Aquino, who rose to power on a
corruption-busting pledge, has to date failed to live up to his election
campaign reform rhetoric. That could change if his government's dogged pursuit
of former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo leads to an evidence-based
Arroyo stands accused by Aquino's government of amassing billions of dollars
worth of ill-gotten assets and properties during her nine-year tenure. She and
her husband, Jose Miguel Arroyo, are expected to face at least six charges of
economic plunder, including accusations they received kickbacks on a US$329
million national broadband network contract tendered to China's ZTE Corp.
The former first couple also stand accused of masterminding a fertilizer fund
scam by which they allegedly funneled 728 million
pesos (US$16.8 million) worth of state funds into Arroyo's 2004 presidential
election campaign, a poll she won in a narrow result. Both of them are also
being investigated for electoral cheating during 2007 polls. Arroyo faced down
various impeachment motions on similar election fraud charges while in power.
Arroyo, currently a member of congress, has so far avoided prosecution under
Aquino's watch. Her critics say that's because the Supreme Court is still
stacked with her political appointees, including Chief Justice Renato Corona, a
former Arroyo chief of staff and official spokesman. They argue Corona's
appointment, made towards the tail end of Arroyo's tenure, was specifically
designed to protect her from lawsuits once she stepped down from power.
Since he took office in 2010, Aquino's efforts to net corrupt politicians and
bureaucrats have failed to gain significant traction - despite the Philippines'
perennial ranking as one of Asia's most corrupt countries. Arroyo's advocates
argue Aquino's administration is engaged in a witch-hunt to distract attention
from its failure to honor its many reform promises.
Former presidents Ferdinand Marcos and Joseph Estrada both faced charges of
massive economic plunder, but their convictions have utterly failed to
eradicate the country's endemic corruption levels. Arroyo's government pursued
the plunder charges against Estrada, but eventually granted the former populist
leader an amnesty on a vow he would not return to politics.
Arroyo is arguably in a better legal position to fight the charges. Her
continued influence over the judiciary has put the Supreme Court on a collision
course with the Department of Justice (DoJ). Last month, the DoJ ignored a
temporary restraining order issued by the Supreme Court against travel
restrictions on Arroyos so as to allow them to travel abroad for medical
treatment; the ruling invalidated an earlier hold order issued by the DoJ
against their traveling abroad while under investigation.
That set the chaotic scene on November 15, when a supposedly ailing Arroyo
arrived at Manila's international airport in a wheelchair and neck brace only
to be barred from departing the country by immigration officials under DoJ
orders. Arroyo's entourage, including her husband, a top aide, security
personnel and a nurse, were scheduled to fly to Singapore and subsequently
indicated they might travel further abroad to seek medical attention in Spain.
The DoJ justified its move on the legal argument it had not yet received the
Supreme Court's temporary restraining order when Arroyo arrived at the airport.
The Supreme Court has since suggested it could file contempt charges against
DoJ Secretary Leila de Lima, while pro-Arroyo attorneys are seeking de Lima's
disbarment for apparently flouting the Supreme Court's decision.
In the court of public opinion, however, sentiment seems to be on Aquino's
side. Opinion polls show that both Arroyo and the Supreme Court are unpopular
and suffer from credibility issues in the public eye. "It is no less corrupt
than the rest of the Philippine judicial system," quipped Pacific Strategies
and Assessments, a risk analysis firm, in recent reference to the Supreme
Court's apparent role in protecting Arroyo from prosecution.
While the Supreme Court insists its decisions are consistent with the letter of
the law, its record when ruling on cases involving the Arroyos has been
overwhelmingly in the former first couple's favor. Chief Justice Corona has
voted 19 times in favor of the Arroyos and never in dissent since taking over
the Supreme Court's leadership. Two senators and a number of prominent
individuals have recently asked Corona to inhibit himself from any future
deliberations involving Arroyo to concerns of his impartiality.
The Supreme Court is currently holding oral arguments on petitions filed on the
constitutionality of the DOJ-Commission on Elections (Comelec) joint panel,
which recommended Arroyo's prosecution for alleged electoral fraud in 2007.
Based on that recommendation, an arrest warrant was issued by the Pasay
Regional Trial Court (RTC) judge against Arroyo, which puts to rest for now the
question of whether she should be allowed to travel abroad.
Arroyo has been charged along with former Maguindanao province governor Andal
Ampatuan Sr, a top suspect in the 2009 Maguindanao massacre that saw the
killing of 57 people, including his clan's political rivals, and election
supervisor Lintang Bedol for alleged fraud during the 2007 senatorial elections
in parts of the southern island of Mindanao. Arroyo and the Ampatuans were
close political allies.
If the Supreme Court rules that the joint panel's formation was illegal, then
the arrest warrant and electoral sabotage case against Arroyo will be legally
dismissed. Lead prosecutor Maria Juana Valesa has recommended that Arroyo be
transferred from her current confinement in a first class hospital, which news
reports suggest costs 50,000 pesos per day and is outfitted with a huge dining
area and bathroom Jacuzzi, to a proper detention center while she awaits
After Arroyo's doctor recently admitted to the Pasay Regional Trial Court that
the former president is "medically fit" to leave the hospital, her lawyers have
scrambled for a legal defense to justify her being held under house arrest
rather than in prison. Arroyo is still in hospital, supposedly suffering from a
recently developed case of colitis.
Her latest alleged malady comes after the families of 32 slain journalists in
the Maguindanao massacre filed a 15 million peso suit against Arroyo for aiding
the Ampatuan clan through an executive order that legalized the use of private
armies as "force multipliers" in the war against insurgents in the area. Under
the doctrine of command responsibility, the claimants argue, Arroyo should also
be held liable for the massacre deaths because the Philippine police, which
were under her supervision at the time of the mass murder, are among the
massacre's main suspects.
The Philippines is home to a storied culture of impunity in murder cases where
provincial politicians and officials are suspects, but the Maguindanao massacre
and Arroyo's apparent attempts to shield the Ampatuans have touched a nerve
among Manila's politically important middle class. Political analysts believe
that if Arroyo is convicted of one of the many accusations she faces, follow-up
corruption suits will be easier to prosecute. And an Arroyo conviction would
likely provide a bounce to Aquino's own sliding reform credentials.
Joel D Adriano is an independent consultant and award-winning freelance
journalist. He was a sub-editor for the business section of The Manila Times
and writes for ASEAN BizTimes, Safe Democracy and People's Tonight.
(Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please
contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)