POSTSCRIPT / August 19, 2001 / Sunday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Senate's grave abuse of imagined powers

WHY should a person who was invited to testify in a Senate inquiry be detained or “jailed” for not proving “charges” made in the course of his testimony?

Sen. Robert Barbers who was presiding over the Senate hearing last Friday said that witness Angelo “Ador” Mawanay, former police agent, was detained for failing to present proof that he delivered smuggled cellphones to Sen. Loren Legarda in 1998.

It’s time that we reminded ourselves that persons invited to testify in congressional inquiries are not under compulsion to prove the guilt or innocence of anybody. The witnesses are asked questions and they simply reply.

The senators can only accept or reject the answers. Or dismiss the witness. For them to punish a witness for honest answers that happen to displease some of their colleagues is an arrogant abuse of imagined powers.

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GOING farther down to basics… congressional inquiries themselves are not intended to determine the guilt or innocence of anybody. They are conducted mainly in aid of legislation.

The Senate is part of a bicameral legislature whose basic job is to enact laws. Hearing and deciding criminal cases is exclusively a function of the courts, not of the Senate, however highly senators think of themselves.

Now if a Senate committee itself is not expected to determine or prove the guilt or innocence of anybody, why should it demand that a witness before it prove anybody’s guilt and then punish him for failing to do so?

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DRUNK WITH POWER: That is why we expect legislative committees not to invite just anybody. When a person is invited to testify, we assume that the committee has screened him and has reasons to believe that his testimony could be reliable and useful.

This is the same reason why persons invited to legislative hearings expect to be treated with respect. Insulting, berating or harassing — or worse, summarily detaining — witnesses is a mark of a legislature gone mad. Or of being intoxicated with power.

We’re not talking here of contemptuous behavior of witnesses (or even members of the audience), which should be punished. What we’re questioning is the punitive action taken against a witness on the basis of his honest answers to direct questions.

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NOTE that Mawanay was just responding to a question when he disclosed that he once delivered boxes of smuggled cellphones to Legarda. He did not force the issue. He was asked and he merely responded.

He was told to retract his statement, but he did not. Why should he? As Legarda and the rest of the panel did not like Mawanay’s answer (repeat: his answer and not the manner he answered), they ganged up on him.

He was told to prove his allegation, but how could he do that right off his seat with nothing but his recollection of events? He was jailed in one of the rooms and threatened to be left to rot there until he produces satisfactory evidence. How can he do that from his cell?

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MONEY IN THE BOX: In the case of Sen. Noli de Castro, it was the former broadcaster himself who intruded and brought up the topic of Mawanay and a companion once delivering to him a shoebox allegedly filled with P3 million.

Like the cellphones, the box of money was reportedly delivered for Sen. Panfilo Lacson, then the chief of the Philippine National Police.

Responding to De Castro’s followup questions, Mawanay elaborated on his payola story and clarified some misinformation. The Q&A was similar to the exchange he had with Legarda, but it did not end in demands for Mawanay’s detenti on.

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ANOTHER witness, ISAFP chief Col. Victor Corpus, also nearly got into trouble when asked who he thought were the “bad eggs” in the Senate. After some understandable hesitation, he identified one as Sen. Vicente Sotto for allegedly meddling in a big drug case.

The colonel could have been detained, like Mawanay, for daring to link a senator to a scandal that was worse because it involved drugs and not just cellphones.

But Corpus was not touched. Siyempre, you don’t subject the AFP intelligence chief to shabby treatment.

In contrast, Mawanay is small fry whose rights can be trampled just like that. Note how even Senate guards, taking after their bosses, grabbed him like a common criminal and led him to his cell.

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RECTO vs JAWORSKI: Freshman Sen. Rafael Recto with his lawyer’s instinct still intact must have felt uncomfortable or embarrassed for his colleagues and he made a tentative attempt to question the detention.

But Sen. Robert Jaworski curtly reminded the Batangas solon that he was now a senator and asked him on the record on whose side he was. The neophyte Recto piped down, presumably thinking it wise to wait for another time to test the basketbrawler’s mettle.

The spectacle only affirmed the long-held view that the chamber is nothing but an Old Boys Club where the members routinely cleared colleagues in trouble.

We wonder where Senate President Franklin Drilon was all the time and what he thought of his honorable peers ganging up on witnesses they had invited to help them craft legislation.

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PROBATIVE VALUE: There seems to be a misinterpretation of a response of Corpus to a question about the papers he had leaked to media on the alleged link of Lacson to money-laundering and drug trafficking.

He was asked if the papers could stand in court. When Corpus said no, it was taken by many to mean an admission that the documents gathered by the intelligence community cannot support a court case against Lacson.

If we heard it right, however, Corpus was not being asked about the official documents in his possession. The question and his reply referred to the summary reports and fact sheets given to media based on the original documents.

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AS they are, the summary materials leaked to the press would really have no probative value. But the projected cases against Lacson will not depend on these skimpy press materials. Instead, they will depend on the verified documents so far gathered but still withheld from the press.

Our impression, however, is that although Corpus is in the right direction, he still does not have enough incriminating documents to clinch a case against Lacson at this point. He may have official documents secured with the help of the US government but he needs more.

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DRUG MENACE REAL: With his professed intention — that of crushing the growing drug menace before it swallows us — and considering the extent of the influence that drug syndicates now have in the judiciary, the police, the media and other vital institutions, Corpus needs all the support he could muster.

But while we share his disappointment, we’re not ready to condone his attitude that we sometimes have to resort to extra-judicial means for punishing wrongdoers and correcting injustice.

We assume that most senators (not counting those with alleged links to the underworld) who still love their country would not find it difficult to appreciate the anti-drug campaign.

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INFOTECH: The retail price of 128mb SDRAM, PC100 or PC133, has just dropped lower to just P800! We think this is partly because of the rebound of the peso. If this is the real reason, expect the prices of other computer items to go down.

What we’re waiting for is the fall of the prices of Intel’s Pentium 2 and 3. With the appreciation of the peso and Intel’s marketing focus on high-end Pentium 4, we expect the Pentium 2/3s to become cheaper.

Another item we’re watching is the hard disk price. Many readers have asked us about upgrading their hard disks because the small ones they have are filling up, slowing down their computers.

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SOME friends asked us about some strange marks on our text last time. For instance, what should have been the italicized “kunwari” came out “kunwari” What are those i’s in angle brackets?

We don’t know what software and browser the office uses or how incoming text is handled. We surmise that the angle brackets just appeared when our Postscript text was received by the STAR via email.

The brackets are formatting tags for HTML (HyperText Marked Language) used in webpage creation. Text placed between the opening tag and the closing tag comes out italicized when the document is read and displayed by the browser.

We do not use HTML tags in our email, but probably our browser inserted them in the background and the STAR browser failed to convert the tags and simply printed them as is. And nobody spotted their unusual presence in our final text.

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

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