POSTSCRIPT / April 19, 2001 / Thursday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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Who is sabotaging Erap plunder case?

ERAP Estrada will never be executed by lethal injection, as some of his fans fear and many of his foes pray.

Even assuming the fallen President would be convicted of plunder, which calls for death, the harshest punishment that Erap could conceivably reap is a life sentence. We’ll tell you why in a short while.

Incidentally, a life sentence does not mean being locked up in prison for life as many people mistakenly think. This term is usually translated into about two to three decades unless death or presidential clemency cuts it even shorter.

* * *

TO spare their celebrity client the dreaded lethal injection, all that Erap’s well-oiled lawyers have to do is continue what they have been doing with consummate skill — stalling and delaying the judicial process.

Erap turns 64 today. In just six short years, he would be 70, and thereby automatically spared by law from execution by reason of his age.

Article 83 of the Revised Penal Code has these comforting words for Erap types: “The death sentence shall not be inflicted upon a woman while she is pregnant or within one year after delivery, nor upon any person over 70 years of age. In this last case, the death sentence shall be commuted to the penalty of reclusion perpetua with the accessory penalties provided in Article 40.” (underscoring supplied)

* * *

TO dodge the lethal injection, Erap simply has to continue delaying the proceedings, throwing motions left and right, up and down, so he would be at least 70 by the time his case is up for final judgment. That’s just six years from today. Kayang-kaya.

In the unlikely event that the Sandiganbayan, in a burst of unusual speed, sentences him to die and the death penalty is affirmed with finality by the Supreme Court shortly before Erap turns 70, he can still escape execution.

Since he cannot become pregnant in detention and qualify under the first part of Article 83, Erap can dip into his two bulging bags — his bag of billions and his other bag of tricks — to stay the execution.

Erap can easily buy time until he turns 70 and qualify for the mandatory suspension of his execution.

* * *

BUT this is getting ahead of the story. We’re already talking as if Erap would be convicted of the capital crime of plunder. At this point, three months after his fall from the presidency, that is still one big If.

In fact, the plunder case might have been compromised beyond salvage already by an unusual turn of events.

Some people in the office of the Ombudsman hit upon the idea (or it was suggested to them) of also filing, aside from the main case of plunder, separate minor cases based on the same incidents that served as components of the plunder charge.

To the surprise of everybody emerging from the Holy Week lull, warrants for the arrest of Erap were issued Monday on the basis of the minor cases but not on the plunder case.

And as if on cue, Erap and his lawyers motored promptly to the Sandiganbayan to respond to the warrants and post bail.

* * *

WITH that, has the plunder case been compromised? His lawyers can very well argue now that Erap has been charged with five separate crimes to which he has responded properly and that to charge him with the same set of alleged violations would constitute double jeopardy.

In short, the earlier action on the five minor cases that alleged the same facts as those in the plunder case may have precluded another charge, such as plunder, from prospering in the Sandiganbayan.

Until yesterday, the graft court has not found “probable cause” for pressing the plunder charge. Hence no arrest warrant for Erap has been issued for plunder.

* * *

WHY don’t they start off with the main plunder case, then have everything else follow?

Many people are starting to think that there have been quiet negotiations or some understanding between the Erap camp and that of the Arroyo administration.

It seems we have not learned from the lost Marcos cases. Here is a golden opportunity to make up for our past mistakes and resurrect this nation, but we’re dissipating our options. Nobody cares anymore?

The moment we let go this big fish already in the net, this nation will shatter to pieces. Then we would see a real exodus, of Filipinos emigrating in droves. Then our kababayan abroad would be ashamed to say they are Filipinos, and those stuck here would feel stripped of their national pride and purpose.

* * *

THE minor cases where the Sandiganbayan found probable cause ahead of the plunder case were those wherein:

  1. Estrada allegedly intervened to exonerate his friend Dante Tan in a stock manipulation scandal.
  2. Estrada allegedly participated in skimming off P160 million in tobacco excise taxes.
  3. Estrada allegedly received P189.7 million in kickbacks from questioned investments of SSS and GSIS funds.
  4. Estrada allegedly received P545 million in jueteng  protection money.
  5. Estrada allegedly violated the code of conduct of government officials.

* * *

SENSING the adverse implications of the preferential action taken on the minor cases, Ombudsman Aniano Desierto is moving to withdraw the minor cases. What if the Sandiganbayan refuses to let them go?

That intriguing situation where earlier action on minor cases could have torpedoed the bigger plunder case was too obvious for supposedly seasoned lawyers in Desierto’s office to have missed.

We wonder what was used to cover their eyes. The incident has heightened concern that Erap’s billions may have started rolling to ensure his exoneration on the plunder charge.

The situation has also underscored the awkward relationship between the public prosecutors and the private lawyers helping, pro bono, develop and prosecute the cases. The state prosecutors have been observed as keeping the private prosecutors at arm’s length.

* * *

AS footnote to Article 83 suspending the execution of a death sentence on a pregnant convict, there was an interesting case during the Marcos regime involving a woman who was meted death for murdering her husband.

As her date at the death chamber drew near, the woman suddenly announced she was pregnant. Her execution had to be put off.

When she was again set to die, she got pregnant all over again. This happened thrice, until finally the President stopped the soap opera by commuting her death sentence to life.

The talk then was that it was the jail warden who convinced her to be impregnated while on Death Row. His free legal counsel, it was rumored, came with free impregnating services thrown in. He was dismissed, we don’t remember for what.

* * *

ON the kidnapping and murder of publicist Bubby Dacer, if the National Bureau of Investigation has any evidence on anybody being the mastermind, it should lose no time filing the proper charge with the proper court.

But if the NBI does not have evidence or is still completing its dossiers, it should shut up in the meantime. More so with other police and investigative agencies who insist on kibitzing in the case.

The irresponsible floating of supposed masterminds not only confuses the public and unfairly smears people, but also unnecessarily adds political color to what should be an airtight police case.

* * *

WITH some people still asking us if we have anything to do with the plunder of billions in pension funds of the Government Service Insurance System, we clarify once again that we are not the same Federico Pascual you read about as a former GSIS official during whose watch the questioned deals happened.

We have to warn the public, again, that any transaction entered into by our tocayo will not be honored by us.

At the Social Security System, there was also a diverting of billions in pension funds to favored businesses whose main strength appeared to have been their closeness to Erap.

One angle that should also be looked into is the possibility that some key GSIS and SSS officials took advantage of insider information on impending massive infusion of corporate funds to earn some millions for themselves.

* * *

THE bulk of our email this week was on the electronic filing of income tax returns for simple zero-zero cases, meaning those whose only income is their wage from one or two employers and whose withheld taxes have reduced to zero their tax due.

We have looked at the e-filing setup in the United States and found it simple and feasible for qualified filers. We see no serious reason why we cannot have it in the Philippines by next tax year.

The only reason we see why e-filing cannot be adopted here is the resistance of some entrenched syndicates that stand to lose their mega-rackets arising from the tax-filing confusion.

President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, we understand, is a techie of sorts. If the e-filing idea is presented to her, we’re confident she would order its speedy adoption.

* * *

(First published in the Philippine STAR of April 19, 2001)

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