POSTSCRIPT / May 10, 2001 / Thursday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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Let’s allow house arrest under certain conditions

RAIN has been falling the past few days. That’s good. While helping lower the temperature and give the grimy metropolis a much-needed shower, it loosens up the layers of election posters all over town.

This is the best time for cleanup crews to peel off those unsightly campaign materials.

We hope the rain keeps up till tomorrow, last campaign day, before the weekend mercifully intervenes and winds us down for the elections on Monday.

* * *

PRESIDENT Gloria Macapagal Arroyo extended another sporting hand to the opposition when she gave instructions to pull out those TV ads showing some senatorial candidates of former President Erap Estrada inciting the Edsa crowd to, huh, go against Malacañang.

The opposition is complaining about the very graphic and very incriminating film clips, which means that they must be hurting.

But that’s not the reason why we think those ads should stay despite GMA’s instruction to pull them out. The ads are truthful, and that is enough reason to let them run.

People have the right to full, free flow of information, especially at a time when they are being called upon to make crucial decisions at the polls.

* * *

WE heard somebody comment that the TV ads are divisive. But that’s precisely the point about elections.

An election calls for making choices, for voting, for a division of the house. By definition, an election divides the voting masses into different blocs backing candidates of their choice.

Before they cast their ballots, the people must be told everything about the candidates. Voters need those informative TV ads. Unless it can be shown that showing them violates certain laws, they should stay – whatever the President says.

* * *

MEANWHILE, many people seem to have forgotten that Erap Estrada has not been convicted of any crime. In fact, despite the sound and fury generated by the lawyers, he has not been arraigned yet.

He is being kept in comfortable quarters at a police training camp in Santa Rosa, Laguna, not as punishment for any crime. He is just being held in detention because the heinous crime of plunder attributed to him is not bailable.

Erap is not serving sentence. He is not a convicted prisoner, yet. He is just a detainee.

* * *

WE’RE calling attention to this important detail, because there were news reports yesterday that Erap would vote on Monday. Of course, he would vote!

Although detained, all his rights, including the right to vote, are intact. That he would vote on Monday is not news.

What is big news is if he would not be allowed to vote.

* * *

ANOTHER issue being debated is whether Erap should be detained at home, the Santa Rosa camp, at a hospital, or elsewhere.

His lawyers are pressing for his “house arrest,” which we take to mean his being allowed to stay restricted at his Greenhills mansion, under certain conditions, while his case is being heard.

Since Erap is still presumed innocent, Postscript has no serious objection to his being placed under “house arrest” at the moment under conditions to be imposed by the Sandiganbayan.

* * *

OUR position has nothing to do with Erap’s having been a president. We do not buy the crap that he should be accorded special treatment just because he was once a president.

In fact, our position is that his being President at the time of his alleged commission of the crime of plunder should be an aggravating, and not a mitigating, circumstance.

In general terms, we hold that (1) when a person is accused of a crime where no life was taken and (2) where the possibility of flight is remote, “house arrest” during his trial could be allowed under conditions to be imposed by the court.

* * *

THIS liberality should not apply only to Erap, but to any person on trial whose case is covered by the two criteria (no life lost, and flight is remote) we listed above.

Considering the state of our prisons, this liberal approach to “house arrest” should be seriously considered for all persons detained on criminal charges.

The key point is that the man on trial is presumed innocent. The safeguard is the imposition of conditions by the court.

In applying for transfer to “house arrest,” the detainee must sign a waiver or an undertaking accepting without reservations all the conditions imposed by the court.

* * *

THESE are some of the conditions we can think of as safeguards:

  • The detainee’s house and its premises become an extension of court premises, and the detainee shall accept the unquestioned jurisdiction of the court over the property.
  • The premises shall be used exclusively for detention and closely related purposes.
  • The court shall determine who should be allowed and not allowed in the premises at any time, assign guards and other court personnel needed to secure the detainee and ensure that he does not violate the conditions of his house arrest.
  • Since the house is deemed part of court premises, authorized court personnel may make reasonable checks and inspections of how the detainee and other persons in the premises conduct themselves, and make the appropriate report to the court.
  • Although the house is under the control of the court, all necessary expenses (such as for utilities, taxes, food and maintenance) normally incurred by the residents shall be borne by the detainee.
  • The house shall not be used in any manner tending to pursue, continue or cover up the crime alleged to have been committed by the detainee. The detainee may not leave the premises without written permission of the court.
  • The order for “house arrest” can be amended or withdrawn by the court anytime without any need for hearing or explanation.

* * *

THE Sandiganbayan should heed the motion of Ombudsman Aniano Desierto to reset (advance) the arraignment of Erap from June 27 to not later than May 21.

Everything points to the wisdom of not allowing the celebrated case to drag. Erap, or any accused for that matter, is entitled to a speedy trial so he can prove his innocence without delay and return to normal life.

Desierto pointed out that under the Speedy Trial Act (RA 8493), an accused must be arraigned within 30 days of the filing of the information. The plunder case was filed with the Sandigan last April 4.

The new rules on criminal procedures, on the other hand, provide that the accused be arraigned not later than 10 days after the case is assigned to the court. The case was assigned to the Sandigan’s Third Division last April 8 and the accused was arrested April 25.

* * *

THE unprecedented arrest and detention of a former president, a popular one at that, on charges punishable by death, could be unsettling not only for the parties directly involved but for the entire nation.

The earlier the case is disposed of either way, the better for the nation. To be able to move forward, we cannot be endlessly feuding — in court, in Congress, on the campaign trail, in corporate board rooms, in the streets, everywhere.

Let’s get on with the trial of Erap and let the chips fall wherever.

* * *

THE election campaign has disturbed the normal run of things, especially the handling of the cases filed against the former President.

It is obvious that the Arroyo administration has been tiptoeing around Erap, afraid that any wrong move might tip the balance in favor of the opposition senatorial slate. One key consideration is not to generate sympathy for Erap and his candidates.

After the elections on Monday, and after the votes are counted and the winners declared, you can expect the administration to move with more resolute steps.

* * *

(First published in the Philippine STAR of May 10, 2001)

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