Justice in the Philippines

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Justice in the Philippines

Philippine President Benigno Aquino vowed to make fighting corruption a priority when taking office. But the impeachment trial for the chief justice has sparked accusations of overreach.

A poster at the Paranaque city hall in Manila reads “Uphold Judicial Independence,” claiming that the rights of Chief Justice Renato Corona are being trampled by the Philippine government and suggesting that rule of law in the almost 100 million population, 7,000 island nation is at risk.

It sounds reasonable – after all, even hardened autocrats pay lip service to lofty abstractions like “rule-of-law.” But the chief justice in question is in the midst of an impeachment trial for abuse of office, and was a so-called midnight appointment by former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, taking up his post two days before she stepped down and Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III won a May 2010 election, partly on a platform of rule-of-law reform and curbing graft.

When the Aquino government sought to stop Arroyo – who is herself accused of corruption and rigging elections – from traveling abroad for medical treatment for what she claims is a life-threatening bone illness, the courts intervened and sought to overrule the government travel ban on the former president, who is now a heavily bandaged congress representative for Pampanga in central Luzon.

That the Supreme Court decided to break up an Aquino family plantation called Hacienda Luisita, 60 miles north of Manila – and distribute almost 11,000 acres of land to more than 6,000 farm workers – only adds to the intrigue in a country where calls for land reform have long gone unheeded by powerful landed aristocrats.

But Aquino’s media team has been keen to dismiss any link to the impeachment, and media secretary Ricky Carandang said that “we were in favor of the redistribution and supported the decision,” during an interview on Thursday at Manila’s Malacanang Palace.

Similarly, when asked whether the case against Corona was merely part of a broader factional arm wrestle, presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda said that “this is in fact about our commitment to hold all officials accountable, and is not about attacking the judiciary.”

If a trial enmeshed in dynastic intrigue and possible score settling wasn’t compelling enough, earlier this month, the defense had ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales testify in an attempt to clear Corona of allegations he held secret bank accounts. But that backfired spectacularly, when the ombudsman instead alleged that the chief justice had more than $28million dollars in 82 different accounts.

“We are giving them just enough rope to hang themselves,” said Edsal Tupaz, a lawyer working for the prosecution. He asserted that ombudsman Corona’s revelations were “a game changer.” But on Tuesday, the chief justice will testify, and his defense team said Friday that it has evidence to refute some of the allegations against Corona.

Journalist and academic Luis Teodoro cautions that the Philippine legal system has major weaknesses. “One of the problems in this country is that it’s difficult to prove a lot of things,” he says, a reminder perhaps that neither defense nor prosecution can take anything for granted in this case.

Back at the Paranaque city hall, a few doors down from the poster backing the chief justice, another hearing was taking place – this time for a murder case from one of Manila’s slums, a reminder of how the country’s legal system works for the tens of millions of Filipinos living on the breadline.

*Roger Buendia was 17 when the alleged crime took place, and though kept in a youth detention center, this was in the same building as adult criminals. “The place was filthy and when it rained the floor welled-up with water and we couldn’t sleep,” he says. That was the least of his worries, however.

NGO Preda assists minors in detention in the Philippines, helping them pass at least some of their sentences at Preda centers outside Manila – rather than in jails in Manila where sometimes they are kept with adults, or, in some cases, are locked up on trumped up or false charges by corrupt cops seeking to boost their promotion chances by scoring a certain number of arrests.

Francis Bermido Jr., a Preda social worker, took up the story. “Some of the older prisoners downstairs were threatening Roger because of the murder charge – some said they knew the man he’s accused of killing.” Preda secured a court order allowing Roger to stay with the organization, for his own safety.

Mother of the accused Selena wipes away tears while talking at the cramped but neat family apartment in the barangay Don Bosco slum, a couple miles from the city hall. She sells halo-halo for a living, and handing me one of these ice cold Filipino desserts, she says she has mixed feelings about her son staying at Preda.

“Preda is so far away and I can’t take that much time to visit because I need to make ends meet here,” she sighs. ”But it’s better than the jail, where they treat the prisoners worse than dogs.”

*pseudonym used to protect the accused’s identity

Simon Roughneen is a Southeast Asia-based writer. His work has appeared in the Financial Times, Los Angeles Times, South China Morning Post and Asia Times, among other publications.