Poll exec on swift action: Priority, not rush to judgment
It wasn’t a rush to judgment, just a matter of priority.
In the wake of what legal experts described as one of the swiftest proceedings in Philippine judicial history, officials on Monday sought to justify the moves on Friday that led to the issuance of an arrest warrant for former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
Arroyo, now a Pampanga representative who is suffering from a rare bone ailment for which she had undergone three operations this year, is under “hospital arrest” at St. Luke’s Medical Center in Taguig City.
Election Commissioner Augusto Lagman said Arroyo’s repeated attempts to leave the country were one of the factors why the joint Commission on Elections-Department of Justice (Comelec-DOJ) panel in an en banc meeting “prioritized” deliberations and decided to approve a resolution charging Arroyo with electoral sabotage.
Five of the seven commissioners approved the resolution.
Two commissioners took no part in the voting because they said they had not received a copy of the resolution when it was tabled for discussion at 7:30 a.m. on Friday.
The resolution was approved at 10 a.m. and later transmitted to the Pasay City Regional Trial Court, where the case was raffled off and landed in the sala of Judge Jesus Mupas.
Mupas, who had been reprimanded by the Supreme Court for sitting on long-pending cases, decided—after reportedly examining very quickly eight thickly bound volumes of documents—that there was probable cause to charge Arroyo with sabotaging the 2007 senatorial elections.
The judge then issued an arrest warrant, which was served on Arroyo in her hospital room at 6:30 p.m.—11 hours after the whole process began with the Comelec deliberations en banc.
The issuance of the warrant effectively barred Arroyo from traveling abroad and rendered meaningless a temporary restraining order (TRO), which the Supreme Court issued on November 15.
Lagman, an ardent critic of the Arroyo administration, said that contrary to the perception of “some” people, the panel did not “rush” approval of the filing of the criminal charge, which is punishable by life imprisonment and is nonbailable.
“It was prioritized for the reason that it’s a case of national interest plus even more important, there was an attempt to flee,” Lagman told reporters in a phone interview Monday.
The resolution was issued three days after the Supreme Court issued its TRO on a directive issued by Justice Secretary Leila de Lima banning the departure of the 64-year-old Arroyo who claimed that she needed urgent medical treatment abroad.
De Lima decided to ignore the Supreme Court TRO.
The TRO is an extraordinary measure which allows courts to grant relief to individuals being subjected to the awesome powers of the state and thereby avoid irreparable harm, according to legal experts, who also pointed out that persons have a right to a presumption of innocence, which is enshrined in the Constitution.
The organization of Former Senior Government Officials (FSGO) on Monday slammed the Supreme Court’s issuance of the TRO, accusing it of “evident partisanship.”
“We call on the justices not to further undermine the credibility of the Supreme Court as an institution,” said the FSGO statement issued by Vicente T. Paterno, a former industry minister during the Marcos regime.
Cebu Archbishop Jose Palma, incoming president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, told reporters on Monday the Supreme Court’s decision should be respected.
“We leave it to the goodness in the heart of people and also to the expertise of the law,” he said. “From a pastor’s point of view, I would wish that if a higher body like the Supreme Court has made a decision, I believe that lower courts should respect that.”
Lagman said that when the joint Comelec-DOJ panel released on Wednesday the resolution on its 10-month inquiry into the charges against Arroyo to the Comelec en banc, which has the final say, the election body’s lawyers had been studying the documents even before the commissioners sat down for a meeting on Thursday night.
The joint Comelec-DOJ panel was tasked to look into allegations of massive cheating in the 2004 and 2007 elections, allegedly masterminded by Arroyo.
The Comelec en banc could not discuss the joint Comelec-DOJ panel resolution on the day it was issued because the poll body was holding a daylong “Integrity Summit,” which kept all the commissioners busy.
On Thursday, they also had to attend budget hearings but returned to the Comelec office in Intramuros, Manila, later in the day to discuss the resolution. Discussions lasted until 1 a.m. on Friday, Lagman said.
The Comelec en banc formally convened for a special meeting as early as 7:30 a.m. on Friday. At around 10 a.m., the en banc approved charges of electoral sabotage against Arroyo.
“It wasn’t rushed in the sense that we didn’t study the case because we did,” said Lagman, who stressed he had thoroughly read the resolution twice before joining the en banc’s deliberation.
When asked if the Comelec took into consideration Arroyo’s plan to leave the country during the deliberations, Lagman said commissioners had to “act quickly” but all the evidence, the results of the Comelec-DOJ fact-finding committee and the preliminary investigation were carefully taken into account.
“[It was] of national interest… it wasn’t just a case of a barangay captain filing a protest… there was an attempt to flee and we were not sure if she would be coming back,” said Lagman.
Arroyo’s lawyers have questioned the constitutionality of the Comelec-DOJ panel, saying the Comelec is an independent body under the Constitution and partnering with the department turned it into nothing more than a “kangaroo court.”
Joel Pelicano, Branch 112 clerk of court, told the Philippine Daily Inquirer the raffle processes in the Pasay City Regional Trial Court had been computerized under a pilot project.
“Once the information is filed, all the judge has to do is evaluate it for probable cause,” he said in an interview.
Pelicano said that while the initial processes appeared to be fast and furious, he expected the trial to crawl at a snail’s pace, pointing to the trial for plunder of former President Joseph Estrada, which took six years. With reports from Miko Morelos and Jannette I. Andrade; and Jason A. Baguia, Inquirer Visayas
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