POSTSCRIPT / April 26, 2001 / Thursday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Erap blew his chance to show statesmanship

IT was a messy overkill at Greenhills yesterday, but we were at least able to show the world that we are also capable of arresting and detaining a former president.

Now let’s see if we have the resolve to continue detaining ex-President Erap Estrada under appropriate circumstances and, if the evidence warrants, convicting him for the heinous crime of plunder.

Our people and our judicial system are as much on trial as Erap.

* * *

ERAP Estrada missed a chance to display a measure of statesmanship and advance his claim of innocence.

If the ex-President were innocent, as he has repeatedly claimed, he could have seized the psychological moment by doing any or all of these things after the warrant for his arrest was issued yesterday by the Sandiganbayan:

  • Publicly appealed for order and sobriety among his sympathizers blocking approaches to his Greenhills residence who were harassing media, girding to battle the police, and making a mess of the neighborhood.
  • Motored to the national police headquarters at Camp Crame to surrender without having to wait for the arresting sheriff and the police to knock on his door with thousands of policemen and soldiers standing guard.
  • Publicly declared that he wanted his trial to start right way and for his case to be heard non-stop so he could clear his name in the shortest possible time.

* * *

IT may not be fair to him, but many people see Erap’s strenuous effort to stall his arrest and trial as a sign of guilt. He looks terribly scared to face the truth.

An innocent man unjustly accused of a heinous crime would jump and angrily demand to confront his accusers. He would lose no time asking the court to rush his trial so he could prove his innocence.

* * *

IF he were really innocent, Erap could have taken the higher moral ground.

For instance, he could have addressed his agitated supporters massed at Greenhills. He could have told them in person that there was no need for them to shield him from the authorities because he was going to present (surrender) himself.

Such a statement or appeal from the former President to his sympathizers could have prevented the violence that later resulted in unnecessary injuries to some policemen, his fans and some bystanders, including members of the working press.

The stage was set for him to be a statesman, kahit kunwari lang, but he failed to mount the waiting stage.

* * *

WHEN people who had missed the radio-TV coverage of yesterday’s developments at the Sandiganbayan, Greenhills and Camp Crame ask us about the case, these are the first two questions they invariably blurt out:

  • Have they arrested him yet?
  • Will his cell be air-conditioned?

We’re intrigued by the immediate followup question No. 2 having to do with the amenities of Erap’s would-be detention cell. And we think the authorities, if not Erap himself, should note this important detail.

While common among the rich and a segment of the middle class, air-conditioning is a luxury denied most Filipinos. Extending this to a person accused of plunder, or the systematic massive looting of public money, may not sit well with them.

* * *

IN appearing to resist arrest, it was possible that Erap may have been baiting the administration into committing an overkill and thereby generate sympathy for him as an underdog in the propaganda sidebar — and the ongoing election campaign.

While the police virtually threw the entire Camp Crame into its Greenhills operation yesterday, we doubt if Erap succeeded in generating significant additional support from people who watched the spectacle on TV.

We think the Arrest-Erap drama merely deepened partisan feelings, but did not change the political equation either way. It did not engender kind thoughts for him from those who did not previously look at him with sympathy.

* * *

FIRST of all, Erap fans can be presumed to continue their adulation whether he is arrested or not, whether he is found guilty or not, whether they are paid or not, and in whatever manner his arrest and conviction are conducted.

The Arroyo administration need not crack its head studying how it could win this small pro-Erap segment — which could translate to some 10 percent of the votes in the coming May elections. It can safely give this up as lost.

To compensate, the administration should strengthen its influence on the 10 percent at the other end of the political spectrum who are presumably anti-Erap and for giving President Gloria Mapacagal Arroyo all the support she needs.

The unclaimed field in the middle represents the 80 percent of the electorate teetering between the two extremes of Erap and Gloria sympathizers. This is the rich field the People Power Coalition should work hard to cultivate before May 14.

* * *

SECONDLY, Erap’s followers who scurried around Greenhills like red ants scavenging for food projected a most negative image on TV with their comparatively uncouth behavior.

The police massive mobilization of thousands in a bid to arrest just one man had the potentials of stirring latent anti-police sentiments among the middle class and other sectors, but Erap’s rowdy fans succeeded in making the police look like altar boys on their way to Mass.

Erap’s followers also committed the blunder of harassing and physically attacking members of local media. That’s bad public relations at a time when their idol needs all the PR help he can muster.

* * *

THE mere fact that the Sandiganbayan, after a careful assessment of the evidence piled up against Erap, found probably cause and ordered his arrest was a confirmation for most people of their own appreciation that Erap is guilty as charged.

Erap’s mishandling of his arrest compounds the negative impression that he is afraid to face the charges — a strange behavior for someone who keeps saying that he wants to have his day in court.

* * *

AS in the aborted impeachment trial in the Senate, Erap may have erred by listening more or placing his fate entirely in the hands of his lawyers.

Plunder is a criminal case all right, but the collateral issues are more of a function of public relations and politics than of the law. It was a mistake to rely too heavily on the lawyers.

His lawyers would be remiss if they did not protect the rights of their client. But they do him a disservice as they unwittingly feed the impression that their client is afraid of the truth — which is the image that Erap projects.

Sometimes we wonder if Erap’s lawyers are paid for each page of memorandum and for every motion they file in court. Flooding the Ombudsman and the Sandiganbayan with endless paperwork may delay the inevitable, but it does not wash away anybody’s guilt. Neither does it improve his public image.

* * *

AS of late yesterday, Erap stragglers had encamped around the Edsa shrine at the intersection of Ortigas Ave. in a sacrilegious parody of Edsa People Power.

But they do pose a legitimate question: If it was right for a mass of like-minded citizens to gather at Edsa and cause the removal of two presidents, would it be less right for a similar crowd, albeit smaller in number, to gather at the same shrine to air an urgent political grievance?

Who is the arbiter of what is right and not right when People Power is invoked? It would be interesting to hear from the people themselves.

* * *

REPORTS had it yesterday that the police themselves would ask the Sandiganbayan to transfer Erap from Camp Crame to another facility of the Philippine National Police in Santa Rosa, Laguna.

It was noted that Erap’s detention in Crame might disturb the normal activities and the human traffic in and around Crame in the heart of the national capital. In contrast, the Santa Rosa facility is some 30 minutes away to the south in rustic surroundings and can be better secured being a PNP installation.

But if Santa Rosa is finally chosen, the authorities may have to scale it down. Its announced amenities have projected it to the public as approximating a luxurious resort. There is a widespread objection to giving the fallen President special treatment.

* * *

LOCAL Government Secretary Joey Lina has tried justifying the special accommodations by saying that these are in consideration of Erap’s having been the president. He talks about the dignity of the presidency, blah, blah…

On the contrary, since Erap committed the alleged heinous crime of plunder while he was President, his holding the exalted position at the time and his having taken a sacred oath of office should be considered aggravating, not mitigating, circumstances.

Erap has abused and taken advantage of the power and privilege of his office. By his acts alone, he has lost the dignity inherent in the presidency. The more he should be punished, not pampered and attended to, as we’ve said earlier, like a potentate on vacation.

* * *

(First published in the Philippine STAR of April 26, 2001)

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