MANILA, Philippines?Deposed President Joseph Estrada and Makati Mayor Jejomar Binay may have to choose their rides more carefully next time.
The Philippine National Police is investigating the two opposition leaders for appearing in public on a military jeep with a mounted replica machine gun, a possible violation of a presidential decree issued way back during martial law.
PNP Director General Jesus Verzosa Tuesday ordered Camp Crame?s Civil Security Group (CSG) to ?dig deeper? into the circumstances surrounding a March 3 photograph that showed Estrada and Binay aboard a vintage jeep during a motorcade in Carmen town, Cebu province.
The photo appeared on the front page of a newspaper earlier this month.
?This looks very much like another case of harassment by the administration,? Estrada?s spokesperson Margaux Salcedo said.
For his part, Binay, who is also the president of the United Opposition, described the PNP?s allegations of gun-toting as ?ridiculous and absurd? and part of a smear campaign on the opposition. The mayor had earlier announced that he was interested in running for the presidency next year.
Chief Supt. Ireno Bacolod, CSG head, said he was directed by his superior to ?go deeper into this, check who has liability,? by forming a team from the legal service, firearms and explosives division, and the Police Community Relations Group.
Bacolod said Estrada and Binay could be cited for violating Letter of Instruction No. 1264, issued by then President Ferdinand Marcos in July 1982, which penalized the sale, use and display of gun replicas. The law, however, carries a maximum punishment of confiscation.
Bacolod said the PNP would strictly be within the bounds of law enforcement in handling the case. ?As much as possible, we do not want to mix this with politics,? he said.
According to a report by the Cebu Provincial Police Office to Camp Crame, Estrada and Binay were aboard the vintage jeep with the machine gun replica, said to be owned by the family of Carmen Mayor Sonia Pua, during a parade in the town.
The gun replica has already been surrendered to local police, Verzosa said.
Published reports on the Cebu visit said the two opposition figures went on a four-town swing through northern Cebu in what seemed to be an opening sortie for Binay?s presidential campaign.
Bacolod said some ?curious? town residents first brought up the matter to the local police and asked how come Binay and Estrada rode in a jeep that displayed a firearm.
The people might have mistaken the machine gun replica for a real one, he said.
?But there was no alarm among the populace,? Bacolod said. ?They used that (jeep) in a motor show competition and that vehicle won. So people who are knowledgeable about that knew that it was fake.?
Estrada, unseated in a popular uprising in 2001, was later sentenced to life in prison for plunder but was pardoned in 2007 by President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, his predecessor.
But the former movie star still retains a large following and has hinted that he may run again for president in the 2010 elections.
?It seems they (administration leaders) are trying to send a message to former President Estrada to stop his Lakbay Pasasalamat around the country,? Salcedo said.
?It is unfortunate that the PNP is allowing itself to be used for political purposes,? she said
Binay said ?the demolition job on genuine oppositionists has obviously started. These allegations should be ignored, but under the Arroyo administration, the ridiculous and the absurd are presented as evidence against administration critics.?
?Who knows, they might just charge us with terrorism for going around Cebu with a replica machine gun?? he said.
Topic of firearms workshop
The incident has also prompted the PNP to include the Marcos decree on gun replicas among the topics to be discussed in a three-day firearms workshop which starts Wednesday in Clark Field in Pampanga province.
?We will take this up there because our law, LOI 1264, was formulated in 1982 so it?s really very old,? Bacolod said. With reports from Allison W. Lopez and Agence France-Presse