POSTSCRIPT / November 8, 2001 / Thursday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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Bring in TV and stop the Sandigan vaudeville

OPERATING IN THE DARK: What’s going on in the Sandiganbayan and the trial of former President Erap Estrada?

The best way to get the right answers is to tear away the veil thrown around the Sandiganbayan and allow live TV coverage. There is no sense in barring open reportage of the trial of a top public official charged with serious charges against the people.

Why is the court afraid of the media and the rest of the watching world? What are they hiding?

When the Supreme Court leaned toward a jittery Erap and ruled that TV cameras and live coverage of this historic trial be banned, that spelled the end of the free democratic flow of public information.

Darkness and the bats that come with it have descended on the court. Maybe the Supreme Court never intended it, but the shroud thrown around the Sandiganbayan has abetted those dirty legal tricks transforming the trial into a power play.

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TRY AGAIN, ERAP!: Former President Erap Estrada, meanwhile, better cook up some other exotic disease if he wants to go abroad for treatment. The knee and eye ailments he is complaining about require simple procedures that Filipino doctors can very well handle.

It is common knowledge in the orthopedic community that Erap, 64, is suffering from severe osteoarthritis of both knees. He was almost operated on last year at the St. Luke’s Medical Center for total knee replacement, which is the definitive treatment for his condition.

However, for some reason he backed out. He was then attended by a foreign orthopedic surgeon, whose name is not immediately available but who could be the Dr. Christopher Mow who recently advised that Erap fly to the States for treatment.

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PREDICTABLE PRESCRIPTION: Of course that American doctor hired by Erap would say the patient must see him at his clinic in California so he could operate on him. It’s like a lawyer advising a moneyed client to sue even if there is not much of a case from the face of his complaint.

We have excellent orthopedic surgeons who can easily do the job, possibly even do it better. Dr. Jo Gonzales of St. Luke’s tells us that they do this type of surgery on a regular basis and have a good batting average regarding postoperative clinical outcome.

Though considered major, Erap’s projected surgery is not regarded as exceptional. It can be done within two hours per knee by experienced hands, Gonzales says.

As for his cataract surgery (humihina na raw ang kita ni Erap!), this simple procedure can be performed on him as an outpatient in most reputable local eye institutions.

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ANOTEHR ERAP JOKE: Insisting that he would not escape if allowed to go to the US for treatment, Erap said: “I have no plans to escape and I will face all the charges that have been filed against me.”

How could he “face all the charges” if he is already ensconced in a Stateside medical sanctuary? Even while here, it takes Herculean efforts to drag him to court to face the charges. What more when (if) he is already in America?

Once he gets to the US, there would be an endless submission of medical certificates from Mow-type doctors saying that the poor Erap has to stay in the US for further medical checkup, treatment, at kung anu-ano pa.

Erap is likely to chime in that he has signed a waiver for his appearance in court. In his absence, his million-dollar (metaphor lang po ito, Kuya Rene) lawyers would handle everything before the Sandiganbayan, with the public — deprived of live TV coverage — unaware of what’s going on.

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WHILE NOBODY’S WATCHING: Take that sudden rejection by Sandiganbayan Presiding Justice Francis Garchitorena of evidence being presented by the prosecution to prove the falsity of the sworn statements of assets and liabilities of Erap as a public official.

The lawyers and the judges involved would have been more careful if the public had kept an eye on the trial through live TV coverage. By our inherent limitations, we in the print media cannot report fully the proceeding and its nuances in the manner live TV can.

The prosecution had neglected to list in the charge sheet the evidence being offered, giving Garchitorena an excuse, a lame excuse we think, to reject it. The rejection has virtually cleared Erap of the charge of perjury or lying in his sworn statement.

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POINT OF IRRELEVANCE: The same issue of evidence being absent from the charge sheet was a high-profile question in the aborted Senate impeachment trial of Erap last year.

Chief Justice Hilario Davide, then the non-voting presiding officer of the impeachment court, conditionally sustained the contention of Erap’s lawyers that evidence not preliminarily listed be rejected for being irrelevant.

The rejection of the questioned evidence could have been accepted by all parties without a whimper had it not been for the fact that the public was watching in the gallery and outside via live TV.

But in the Sandiganbayan, with the dark shroud thrown over it, no such oversight function could be exercised by the public because the people do not know what’s happening in the court.

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THEY NEVER LEARN: With Erap’s impeachment lawyers noisily objecting then to the evidence not listed in the charge sheet, one would think the Ombudsman and prosecution lawyers in the Sandigan trial now would have been alerted to that angle.

How come the prosecution was again caught flat-footed? There is no excuse for that blunder. Was it really a blunder?

We can’t blame people if they suspect that somebody had sold the case and deliberately left out the crucial evidence from the list precisely to have the charge thrown out on a technicality. How else can we explain supposedly seasoned lawyers neglecting a basic detail of evidence?

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DISBAR THE CULPRIT!: Whoever was the lawyer responsible for this deliberate omission should be disbarred, but there is not enough public opinion to force the issue because the public generally does not know what’s going on in the Sandiganbayan operating beyond the pale of live TV coverage.

If you ask us, there seems to be a conspiracy of various participants in the moro-moro for working out the clearing of Erap through technicalities.

When a policeman misplaces a decimal point in his declaration of the weight of shabu caught on a suspect, the officer gets it in the neck. But in the Sandiganbayan, those responsible for sloppy handling of evidence get away with it — and might even get rewarded handsomely for it.

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JUST TURNED BACK: We have been following the stories of the two Filipinos who were sent back to the Philippines after their arrival in Seattle last Oct. 31. Although the media reported that the two suspected anthrax-carriers were deported, we doubt if they were.

Based on news accounts, it appears to us that the two travelers — Wel Come (an irony of a “welcome” name) and Bernie Crisostomo — were just turned around or sent back after they withdrew their application for entry into the US.

There is a difference between being deported and simply being turned back.

Although the duo were not found in violation of any law, they must have found it pointless to insist on entering after the grilling — not to mention the humiliation of having been handcuffed in public. Immigration officers have perfected the art of intimidation.

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WHAT’S THE POINT?: Technically, if the pair felt aggrieved or unjustly barred, they could have appealed to the immigration supervisor, or retained a lawyer. Theoretically, it was possible for them to have stayed on parole visas while their case or appeal was pending. But what’s the point?

Many Filipinos, especially first-time visitors, are so nervous at the US port of entry that when subjected to searches and interrogation just decide to go back home despite the great expense they had incurred already.

Some Filipinos who are turned back (not deported) cannot understand why they were barred considering that they carried valid passports and US visas. A valid visa is no guarantee of a hassle-free entry.

The visa obtained from the US consulate in Manila is issued by the State Department, but the processing at the port of entry and the decision to allow the visitor in is made by immigration officers who are with the Justice Department.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of November 8, 2001)

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