Saturday, October 27, 2007

Arroyo reaps whirlwind of protests over Estrada pardon

Inquirer, Northern Luzon Bureau, Southern Luzon Bureau, Associated Press
Last updated 00:16am (Mla time) 10/27/2007

MANILA, Philippines--PRESIDENT Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo has reaped a whirlwind of protests with her pardon of convicted plunderer Joseph "Erap" Estrada.

Ms Arroyo's allies in the Senate used strong words in airing their disapproval, and Luis "Chavit" Singson, the man who set in motion the beginning of the end of her ousted predecessor, lamented the "rush" and demanded to know if a "compromise agreement" had accompanied the move.

Even her staunch ally, former president Fidel Ramos, spoke out in China where he was attending a conference to bewail the pardon as "a terrible, terrible calamity to the great, great, great majority of the Filipino people who have suffered from the plunder."

In a press conference Friday, Sen. Richard Gordon said the President "wasted a chance to leave a legacy of justice."

"I am revolted by the whole scenario," Gordon said. "I am not questioning her right to pardon but I am questioning her responsibility. She did not use her authority properly. [You] use your power to benefit the people. You do not use your power to make yourself survive."

Senate Majority Leader Francis Pangilinan also cited survival as Ms Arroyo's motive in pardoning Estrada.

He said Ms Arroyo's act was "meant to appease the Erap camp, score political points and ensure her own political survival."

"This is a plain and simple maneuver by the Arroyo administration to remain afloat. It does not serve the cause of justice. It is highly questionable and inappropriate for the Arroyo administration to go into a mad rush to grant the pardon just as her government faces all these serious charges of corruption and bribery," Pangilinan said.

Veiled warnings
Other reactions were veiled warnings that Ms Arroyo could face Estrada's fate.

"Let him (Estrada) have his pardon. All I can say is, 'Goodbye Gloria,'" said Eugenia Apostol, a recipient of the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Journalism and founding chair of the Philippine Daily Inquirer (parent company of

Carol Araullo, chair of the militant Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan) and of PlunderWatch, which filed the plunder case against Estrada, described the pardon as "part of a cover-up most foul" with the immediate goal of diverting public attention from the scandals hounding the Arroyo administration.

"The more sinister objective is to draw Estrada and his followers away from the Oust GMA Movement, entice [him] to instead utilize the electoral arena to rebuild his political and economic clout, and meanwhile allow the Arroyo regime to weather its latest crisis," Araullo said in a statement.

She said Ms Arroyo would "not get away with this latest abuse of power because the people, including Erap's followers, are fed up with the poverty and misery wrought by her antipeople policies."

In a phone interview, Chavit Singson said the pardon was a mockery of the justice system that would set "a very bad precedent."

"We fought hard for [Estrada's] ouster and we offered our lives to that struggle. Now, why are we ready to forgive him when he has yet to suffer for his sins?" the former governor of Ilocos Sur said in Filipino.

He declined to comment when asked if he would withdraw support for Ms Arroyo. But his words were ominous: "Let us wait and see."

Senator Gordon said Ms Arroyo's move was a desperate attempt to win her fight with Speaker Jose de Venecia: "She must be allies with Erap now. Joe de Venecia will have to find a new ally.

"She chose to survive rather than be right, rather than be just. It's not even a question of mercy. It's a question of survival for her. It's transactional leadership at its purest form.

"We have become a laughingstock of the world. People are hungry for justice; they were robbed. This weakens the moral fabric of our country.

"Until we show our people that there are no special exemptions, there will be no justice in the country ... Is this just a game? Then let us free all the rich and powerful people in jail."

Sen. Joker Arroyo decried the President's "lightning and tasteless haste" in pardoning Estrada.

"Why did we go through six years of trial if the President was predisposed anyway to pardon Mr. Estrada the moment the decision was rendered? It rendered the trial so inutile. Remember, Erap was convicted of a political offense; he was not convicted of a common crime," Arroyo said in a statement.

He said that while the President's power to pardon was beyond question, she "must answer to her conscience and the reaction of the people to her decision to pardon [Estrada] too soon."

Ultimate betrayal
For Akbayan, a party-list group that was among those that initiated the impeachment case against Estrada, the pardon reflected, not national unity, but "honor among thieves."

"The President treats justice like a mere transaction among thieves. Who else but the most incorrigible of thieves would not hesitate to do a shameless act like this? This mockery of justice is unpardonable," Akbayan Rep. Risa Hontiveros said in a press conference.

Hontiveros said Estrada's plunder conviction and formerly expected imprisonment were supposed to prove that high officials could be held accountable for their acts.

Freeing him is "the ultimate betrayal of People Power," she said.

Etta Rosales, a former lawmaker and Akbayan's chair emeritus, said corruption was prevailing "because we have high officials who abuse their authority to coddle corrupt officials."

"The capacity to grant executive clemency to an official convicted of corruption could only come from a President who's all too willing to commit the same crime and expect the same privilege," Rosales said.

Added Hontiveros: "This act normalizes corruption, sending a wrong message to the youth and other public officials. Who else is she willing to forgive? The Marcoses?

"In one swift act, Mrs. Arroyo demolished the integrity and credibility of our anticorruption institutions."

Black every Friday
The Black and White Movement called on Filipinos to wear black every Friday in "mourning the death of justice in our country."

"Let us paint this nation's heart black, for that is its color at its core," the civil society group said in a statement.

"Today [Friday] will be marked as a miserable day in our nation's history," it said, adding that the pardon was "a reflection of the culture of transactional politics that has characterized GMA's regime, which has brought our country to a state of moral bankruptcy."

Recalling the time and public funds spent in Estrada's four-year plunder trial, the citizens' group Maypagasa said: "It's a grand zarzuela, after all.

"Is this the concept of justice that this government knows? We will not be surprised if corruption will continue to flourish under the Arroyo administration. They just have to apply for pardon and presto, they can even enjoy their loot."

Maypagasa also said it would hold Ms Arroyo "accountable for this travesty of our justice system."

"This government has lost all moral ascendancy to talk about curbing corruption," it said.

Poet Axel Pinpin, one of the "Tagaytay 5" young men imprisoned for more than a year without charges, said the pardon "only showed what kind of government and justice system we have."

"It's simply unacceptable and deplorable. While convicts like Estrada go scot-free, innocent prisoners, especially political detainees like us, rot in jails," Pinpin said.

No difference
According to House Minority Leader Ronaldo Zamora, the pardon makes no difference in the opposition's plans against Ms Arroyo.

Zamora, a close ally of Estrada who once served as his executive secretary, said Ms Arroyo would still face impeachment if evidence of her culpability and the opportunity to pass a complaint in a House dominated by her allies presented themselves.

"We are not affected by [Estrada's] pardon.... We will continue to hold the President accountable according to standards of public accountability," Zamora told the Inquirer.

"[The pardon] does not make one wisp of difference," he said.

Asked if the opposition in the House would actively participate in impeachment proceedings if the evidence merited a serious complaint and if, by some way, a stronger case was allowed despite the one-year ban on new impeachment information, Zamora replied in the affirmative.

He said there was a need to look into the alleged bribery of lawmakers and local government officials in MalacaƱang on Oct. 11, but he expressed doubt that an inquiry into the cash handouts would prosper in the House.

House Deputy Minority Leader Roilo Golez of ParaƱaque said the opposition in the chamber was never a party in the negotiations for Estrada's pardon.

He said the opposition would naturally go on with its business of looking into excesses in the government.

"The minority did not join the appeal for and was not a party to the request for pardon for former President Erap," Golez said.

Asked if the opposition would continue to check the administration, Golez said: "It goes without saying. Fiscalizing is one of the principal responsibilities of the minority."

Reports from Gil C. Cabacungan Jr., Fe Zamora, Dona Z. Pazzibugan, Jerome Aning and Norman Bordadora in Manila; Leoncio Balbin Jr., Inquirer Northern Luzon; Marlon Ramos, Inquirer Southern Luzon; AP

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