When Malacanang announced a week ago on October 24, 2007 that it would conduct a “national survey to get a feel of the public pulse on the issue”, I couldn’t wait for this column to appear to express my opinion on the proposed presidential pardon for convicted plunderer Joseph “Erap” Estrada.
But would President Arroyo wait at least a week before she announced her decision? There was hope. The day before the national survey plan was announced, Interior Secretary Ronaldo Puno (who held the same post under Estrada), informed the press that he expected Estrada to be pardoned and sent home before Christmas. Estrada himself had expressed the belief that he would be pardoned before November 7, the date he would begin his sentence in the New Bilibid Prison.
So there would be time, time for NOPE, the NO to Pardon for Estrada movement, to gather momentum, to prevent this “mockery of justice” from occurring. Well, not quite. Barely two days after she made the announcement, Pres. Arroyo granted “absolute presidential pardon” to Estrada citing his age (70), his “confinement” for 6 ½ years at his Tanay villa, and the need for “national reconciliation” as reasons for her decision.
It was laughable to consider Estrada’s stay at his Tanay Graceland “confinement”. With the funds he plundered, he built an extravagant mansion in Tanay, complete with several lagoons, a waterfall, a presidential museum, a film library, a mini-theater, a garage for 20 cars, a stable for horses, a riding park, an FPJ cowboy bar, a fishing village, a Muslim hall and a presidential mausoleum. It was described as “a veritable theme park worthy of Disneyland.”
The pardon had the full support of the Iglesia ni Kristo (INK) and influential members of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP). It had the full backing of former President Cory Aquino who said she was "happy" about the pardon. "I pray that as a free man, former president Estrada will harness the lessons he had learned from the sufferings he had endured, and continue to serve our less fortunate brothers and sisters." [Cory, just exactly what “sufferings” did he endure and what “lessons” did he learn?]
Unlike Cory, Estrada’s champion in the CBCP, Cebu Archbishop Ricardo Cardinal Vidal, at least had the decency to ask that before Estrada is pardoned, he “must first acknowledge his sins, seek forgiveness and make amends for damages done.”
Estrada would do no such thing. At the celebration at his Polk Street mansion in San Juan after his official release, he defiantly declared: “I may have committed mistakes in my career in public service, but I assure you that corruption is not one of them.”
Estrada has always narrowly defined corruption (like Pres. Bush redefining “torture”) as directly stealing from the nation’s coffers. Thus, receiving billions of pesos in “Jueteng” (illegal gambling) payoffs was not corruption by his definition and neither was collecting a 10% commission (P180-M) from pressuring two government corporations (GSI and SSS) to buy P2-B pesos worth of Belle Corporation stocks, which are now worthless.
Dennis Villa-Ignacio, the Philippine Special Prosecutor who spent 6 ½ years building the case against Estrada, claimed that the pardon was done with “indecent” haste, lacked transparency, deviated from procedures and overlooked a constitutional provision. The Philippine Constitution provides for presidential pardons “except in cases of impeachment” (Article 7, Section 19).
Villa-Ignacio and his team of low-paid government lawyers were pitted against the most expensive lawyers Estrada could buy, yet they prevailed in the end (well, not quite)…
Supporters of Pres. Arroyo's pardon of Estrada argued that it would neutralize his supporters, not realizing that while his supporters may be a mile wide, they are only an inch deep. Just before the Estrada verdict was to be announced, followers of Estrada claimed that they would draw hundreds of thousands of people to protest a guilty verdict. When the guilty verdict was announced, there was barely a whimper of protest.
Estrada’s supporters in the Senate are not likely to back down from going after Arroyo. Estrada’s son, Sen. Jinggoy Estrada, declared that notwithstanding the pardon, he would still continue to address the president as “Mrs. Arroyo” because she is not a legitimate ruler, he said.
Far from appeasing her enemies, she has instead alienated her allies. Former President Fidel Ramos predicted that the pardon could lead to Mrs. Arroyo’s own downfall. He said the pardon was “a terrible calamity to the great, great, great majority of the Filipino people who have suffered from the plunder.”
One of her few supporters in the Senate, Sen. Dick Gordon, described the pardon as a choice “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.” Her other Senate ally, Sen. Joker Arroyo, lamented the President's "lightning and tasteless haste" in pardoning Estrada.
When Malacanang asked for the people’s “pulse” on the issue, the low-paid teachers of Miriam College (formerly Maryknoll) drafted and sent a letter to Malacanang: “For political expediency, legislators and Malacañang offered pardon for the unrepentant and arrogant convict; one who shamelessly plundered and disgraced our beloved nation has been absolved of his crime by President Macapagal-Arroyo who herself is hounded by so many scandals.
"Miriam College stands for truth, justice, peace and integrity. Truth was impartially bared with the Sandiganbayan decision. Justice will not be served if Estrada escapes his sentence. And peace will be a long time coming because with this precedent, grafters will continue to rob our country, unafraid of the full force of the law; and socioeconomic disparities in our country will worsen.
"Education is extremely difficult when the school teaches good citizenship while the country’s leaders make a mockery of it. For the sake of our children and our future, pardon should not be given without Estrada (not his lawyers) apologizing to the Filipino people and without justice being rendered first.”
Nope! Nope! Nope!