POSTSCRIPT / July 22, 2003 / Tuesday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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Judiciary also on trial in lifestyle graft cases

PUBLICITY DISASTER: The filming of one of several versions of the recent escape of Indonesian terrorist Fathur Rohman al-Ghozi and the film’s dissemination to global networks was a publicity disaster.

We’re not even sure at this point if that was actually how al-Ghozi and two Abu Sayyaf members escaped last July 14 from the Camp Crame detention center, yet we were already telling the world in graphic detail how the jail guards supposedly slept while the detainees turned a defective lock and walked out.

We thought all along that the reenactment of a crime is meant only to check out a theory or a suspect’s confession. It is not meant to be a documentation of what actually happened, especially if that is still a matter of conjecture.

The police official who invited the TV networks to film the reenactment should be called down for his bad judgment that had made us look stupid to cablenews viewers worldwide.

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LIFESTYLE CHECK: Good news, meanwhile, seems to be breaking through the dark clouds.

Finally, the government dragged out for public pelting some internal revenue and customs officials who, according to a lifestyle check, have amassed wealth far beyond their legitimate income.

The first batch of officials on the carpet are BIR assistant commissioners Edwin Abella and Percival Salazar, BIR regional director Lucien Sayuno, and Customs warehousing chief Manuel Valencia. Charges have been filed against them.

None of them receives a monthly salary of more than P23,000. But investigation reportedly showed that on that salary, they now own assets in the millions, including choice real estate, luxury vehicles and fat bank deposits that they did not declare in their statement of assets.

Under our system, a person is normally presumed innocent until proved otherwise. But under the anti-graft law, the opposite rule is followed.

Assets of government personnel found to be grossly out of proportion to their legitimate income are presumed to be ill-gotten and are forfeited to the government after due process.

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GMA BOUNCES BACK: Properly handled, this development can turn around the spate of bad news bedeviling President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. It could even improve her poll rating and public image on her way to announcing her running for president in 2004.

The President can use the result of the lifestyle check, followed by relentless prosecution of big grafters, to snatch back the talking agenda from media and take the moral high ground in whipping the bureaucracy — if not the entire country — back into line.

For so long, Malacanang has been merely reacting to the headlines, allowing the media by default to dictate the agenda of the national debate and the substance of the national preoccupation.

The filing of graft charges against ranking revenue and customs officials, with the promise of speedy prosecution, has placed the Arroyo administration back in control, psychologically.

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WAIT FOR BIG FISH: We should keep the momentum of this good news. To keep the nation’s attention, and support, Malacanang should include in the next batch of officials marked for prosecution at least a bureau director, a military and a police general, and some judges.

An official of Cabinet rank can be trotted out on similar charges when the public shows signs of lagging interest.

If the Palace really means business, it will never run out of corrupt officials to take to court. Even former officials can still be prosecuted, because the crime of amassing illegal wealth does not prescribe.

We’ve been told, btw, that a private investigative group has been researching and building up a case against a former president and some other top officials of past administrations.

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COURTS ON TRIAL: Graft and corruption saps the vitality of the economy and places the sincerity of the administration under question.

The high-profile no-nonsense prosecution of big grafters can help sustain support for Mrs. Arroyo till May 2004 — if, as we’ve said, it is properly handled.

The windfall is not just psychological. On the material side, seized ill-gotten wealth — such as the dirty billions in the cases of Marcos and his cronies — will contribute to replenishing the dwindling resources of government.

To sustain the momentum, however, the courts will have to play their part. It would be a pity if after the charges are filed on the basis of the lifestyle check, the cases are taken over by the usual fixers and the hearings allowed to drag till the cases are forgotten.

In this campaign, the judicial system is as much on trial as the officials being brought before the courts to explain the staggering wealth they had accumulated while in the government service.

A special circuit court or a special division of the Sandiganbayan may have to be formed to concentrate on the graft cases.

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U.N. UMBRELLA: Now they are telling us that the Bush administration, after bypassing the UN Security Council, is likely to be forced back to the world body to gain legitimacy for its post-war mopping up in Iraq.

It might be embarrassing for the US to seek shelter under the UN umbrella, but if that will solve the problem, why not?

The US is finding problematical the reluctance of supposed allies (India, France and Germany have been mentioned) to contribute to a peacekeeping force or reconstruction funds without UN approval.

Russia has announced that it would consider sending peacekeeping troops only with a UN mandate that defines the forces’ mission and timetable.

The cost of putting back war-torn Iraq to its feet has been estimated at $4 billion a month. But that’s only money. What is more unnerving to Americans is that US soldiers continue to get killed at a steady rate even after President Bush declared the end of hostilities last May 1.

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PINOY NOT NEUTRAL: Last we heard, the Philippine government was/is also willing to contribute a small force to join the show of flags of US allies. The problem is money, of which we are in short supply.

We think a more basic problem is definition of terms. How can we send a peacekeeping contingent to join the US forces when we are not a neutral observer?

By definition, a peacekeeping force must be neutral, in the same way a referee in a fight is neutral. We have announced to the world our being on the side of the US, and that has made us one of the protagonists, or at least on the side of one of the major combatants.

Can you imagine our boys being shot at in Iraq and being lumped together with what many Iraqis regard as a foreign occupation force? Kaawaawa naman sila!

We pointed out this irrationality in a meeting last month with a ranking State department official in Washington, DC, together with six other East Asian senior editors and columnists.

The official, who had an answer to everything thrown his way, had a quick solution: So let’s not call them “peacekeeping”! He said they might start calling the troops a “stabilizing” force. Watch for that term cropping up in official jargon.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of July 22, 2003)

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