Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo:  deja vu?

“What goes around comes around”

People on the street call it retributive justice (karma) or predatory politics (ganti ganti).  However they may wish to call it, the dramatic incident at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) and the subsequent arrest and detention of former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo (GMA) is the closest one can get to “justice at all cost.”

President Benigno Aquino III (Pnoy) was swept into power on strength of a campaign promise to fight and prosecute corruption in government.  His campaign slogan “kung walang corrupt walang mahirap” captured the imagination of the electorate and gave him an overwhelming mandate in the May 2010 elections.  After almost a year and a half  in office and no “big fish” charged in court for corruption, much less jailed, Pnoy badly needed a high profile case to deliver on his campaign promise.  

Some people speculate that GMA caught the ire of Pnoy for insulting the latter’s mother, the late president Corazon Cojuangco-Aquino who openly supported the unsuccessful movement to oust GMA from power, and for digging the moribund agrarian reform case against the Cojuangco-Aquino-owned Hacienda Luisita that resulted in the Supreme Court (SC) ordering the Cojuangco-Aquino family to distribute their vast landholding in the province of Tarlac to more than 6,000 farmer tenants.

Others say that the officials who served in the Arroyo administration and resigned en masse during the height of public outcry for GMA to resign (many of whom now serve in the Aquino cabinet) have grudges with GMA and now seek to punish her.

Coffee shops around Manila are also abuzz with speculative talks that Pnoy needed a high profile “scapegoat” to distract the public from the lackluster performance of his presidency so far.

Whatever moves Pnoy in prosecuting GMA, the procedure used by the government to arrest GMA is controversial, to say the least, and may have far-reaching implications.

The “national drama” was triggered by the Hold Departure Order (HDO) issued by justice secretary Leila de Lima against GMA and her husband to prevent the couple from leaving the country while government prosecutors conduct preliminary investigations on a string of graft and corruption offenses allegedly committed by the couple during the 9-year presidency of GMA.  (A preliminary investigation is not the same as a case already filed in court.)

The Arroyos immediately sought relief from the SC through a motion for the issuance of a Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) against Secretary de Lima’s HDO, citing that the HDO violates their constitutional right to travel and freedom of movement.  (A TRO is a legal instrument issued by a court to stop a specific action deemed to be in violation of a constitutional legal right.)

While the motion was under consideration by the SC, GMA reportedly went under the knife twice at a local hospital for treatment of what she said is a rare and life-threatening bone disease.  She would later express her intention of seeking further treatment for her illness aboard.

Hours after getting the SC’s approval to travel abroad, GMA and her husband attempted to take a flight to Hong Kong but were stopped from boarding their plane on orders of Secretary de Lima.  Pandemonium broke out at the Terminal 1 of the NAIA as the wheelchair-bound GMA and her husband virtually clashed with immigration and airport officials for a flight out.

Secretary de Lima justified her action in a press statement, claiming that the TRO issued by the SC in favor of the Arroyos is not yet final and executory until after the government motion for reconsideration is filed and denied by the SC. 

Three days later, the government hastily filed with the Pasay City Regional Trial Court a case against GMA for electoral sabotage (?), a non-bailable offense, and got a warrant for her arrest on the same day.

GMA received the warrant in her hospital bed and was processed by the police — mugshots, fingerprinting and all — as a criminal suspect, while a company of police officers cordoned and secured the hospital premises. 

She is now under hospital arrest, mooting the TRO issued by the SC and effectively barring her from leaving the country.

The prosecution of GMA  for her alleged criminal offenses appears to enjoy the support of many Filipinos.  But the way she was hailed in court and arrested by the government may have caused a factionalizing effect on the nation. 

Secretary de Lima, a lawyer by profession, should not have defied the SC — the highest court in the land and the final arbiter of all legal and constitutional questions.

Her defiance erodes the credibility and independence of the SC and stokes the looming open hostilities between Malacañang and the SC that will have devastating consequences for the country.  (Pnoy has been battling the SC since day one in office and had in fact opposed, as president-elect, the “last minute” appointment of Chief Justice Renato Corona by GMA.)  

The speed and haste by which the warrant of arrest was issued by Pasay City RTC judge Jesus Mupas, within hours of the filing of the case, is procedurally improbable, if not irregular, given the volumes of evidentiary documents submitted by the government lawyers that must be carefully read and appraised before a “probable cause” for committing a crime could even be established.  Not to mention the procedural propriety of allowing the respondent GMA first to formally answer the charge against her.

Judge Mupas may also have no jurisdiction over the case against GMA who was (and still is) a government official — no less than a president — at the time the alleged offense was committed by her.  Notwithstanding the provisions of the Election Sabotage Law, it is probably more constitutionally tenable if the charges against GMA and two other former government officials were filed by the Office of the Ombudsman with the Sandiganbayan, the special court vested by law and the Constitution with jurisdiction over criminal and civil cases involving “public officers and employees.”

Recall that the plunder case against former president Joseph Estrada was filed by the Arroyo government (through the Office of the Ombudsman) with the Sandiganbayan, which tried and eventually convicted Estrada.  (GMA granted Estrada with a presidential pardon on the same day Estrada was convicted by the Sandiganbayan.)

It is highly probable that the case against GMA was filed with a regular court for tactical reasons: first, to quickly secure a warrant of arrest that will moot the TRO and secure GMA; and second, to buy more time for the Office of the Ombudsman to prepare and file appropriate charges against the Arroyos with the Sandiganbayan.

The entire mess can also be blamed on government prosecutors for taking their sweet time in filing charges against the Arroyos and Pnoy’s propagandists for telegraphing his moves to the Arroyos, announcing months in advance that GMA will be in jail before Christmas.

As it stands now, GMA, the alleged criminal offender, may yet become “the victim” of a heavy-handed government and a rallying figure for both her allies and the enemies of Aquino in undermining the government.

Due process and public transparency must be observed by the government in the trial of GMA to avoid a repeat of the social division and conflict that has characterized her tumultuous 9-year stay in power.  She failed to effectively govern and had to deal with the ever-present threat to her presidency posed by her numerous enemies.  As a result, she wasted a great deal of her time and effort (and government resource) protecting and defending her presidency at the expense of her other duties as head of government and undivided attention to the pressing needs of the nation.

We cannot afford a constitutional crisis or another social unrest at this time when we, as a nation, have yet to get our acts together 25 years after EDSA-1 and 10 years after EDSA-Dos.  Ironically, EDSA-Dos installed GMA into power.

Author:  Rene “RC” Catacutan
Published 22 November 2011

Incumbent President of the Philippines Benigno Aquino III

Former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo

Supreme Court Chief Justice Renato Corona

Former First Gentleman Miguel Arroyo

Justice Secretary Leila de Lima

Pasay City RTC judge Jesus Mupas

Presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda

Policemen standing guard near the entrance of the NAIA as they wait to stop former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and her husband from leaving the country

Former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo arriving at the NAIA 

More airport police deployed at the NAIA 

Former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo getting wheeled out of the airport terminal 

PNP Senior Superintendent Joel Coronel showing the warrant of arrest for former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo

SWAT police officers stand guard outside the St. Luke’s Medical Center while the warrant of arrest is being served to former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo

Anti-Arroyo protesters marching towards the Supreme Court

A view of the St. Luke’s Medical Center in Taguig City where former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo is currently detained