POSTSCRIPT / September 13, 2005 / Tuesday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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Mr. Estrada a flight risk?  Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha!

BAIL BID: Tanodbayan prosecutors need not break their arms opposing the release on bail of former President Joseph “Erap” Estrada, now detained on plunder charges in his resthouse in the wooded hills of Tanay.

And if the lawyers of Mr. Estrada know what is good for their client, they better stop arguing that he is entitled to bail because the evidence against him is weak. The evidence is weak all right, but it is bad psychology to rub it in.

Focusing on the weak evidence at this stage will just heat up the argumentation since the evidence impinges on the very core of the case. It is almost like asking the Sandigambayan to abbreviate the proceedings and rule outright on the guilt or innocence of the accused.

Remember, lawyers who get paid per appearance loathe speedy trials.

Anyway, it appears that there is already an accommodation in principle. The errands run by two Mikes — El Shaddai high priest Mike Velarde and Environment Secretary Mike Defensor — attest to this. It seems that what is left to be done is merely to provide the legal props for granting bail.

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FLIGHT ISSUES: Even in detention, the matinee idol who mustered more than 10 million votes when he ran for president in 1998 still has enough clout to influence the street marchers now bedeviling President Gloria Arroyo. The Palace knows it pays to be nice to Erap.

But since there are the kibitzing media and the incredulous public to contend with, there has to be a semblance of a fierce firefight between the contending legal panels before the presiding Justice releases Mr. Estrada on bail like his co-accused senator-son, Jinggoy, before him.

If they need a likely bone of contention, the lawyers on both sides can sink their teeth on the question of whether or not the accused is a Flight Risk. (To the non-lawyers, this refers to the accused possibly running away and disappearing once set free on bail.)

Flight plans or the intention of the accused to vanish once released on bail cannot be foretold. Noisily arguing such a possibility can convince the gallery that the lawyers on both sides locked on the correct issue and did their darned best.

After the verbal fireworks, the Justice, supposedly enlightened by the sparks of brilliance, can then issue his momentous order granting Mr. Estrada’s petition for bail.

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CONDITIONS: To show that he did not go overboard, the Justice could append a number of conditions: such as depositing a sizeable amount as warranty or holding a respected member of the community as guarantor, requiring the accused to report periodically to the court, or forbidding the accused and his lawyers from discussing the case outside the court.

But Mr. Estrada will have to help the Sandigambayan convince the jury at large — that is, the public and the media — that, indeed, he is not a flight risk.

Let me help a bit by also wrapping up my contention (POSTSCRIPT, 23Aug05) that having demonstrated his faithful compliance with orders of the court to return to detention after going out on pass, Mr. Estrada is not a flight risk.

His dutiful compliance is similar to that of a US visa holder who does not overstay but promptly returns to his home country at the expiration of his “duration of stay.” Having shown good faith, the visa holder may just be granted a multiple-entry visa next time he applies at the embassy.

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GOOD BEHAVIOR: Mr. Estrada can always cite before the Sandigambayan his documented good behavior.

During the many times he had to be taken to the hospital for emergency treatment, he always went back to detention upon completion of the procedures even while the doctors themselves recommended that he stayed at the hospital for full supervised recovery.

When he went to Hong Kong to finally have his oft-postponed knee surgery, he flew back to Manila despite the doctor’s insistence that he stayed for the needed follow-up therapy. Instead, he asked the therapist to go with him to the Philippines to continue the treatment.

During the three times that he visited his mother Dona Mary, the last time being at her 100th birthday party in May at the Manila Hotel, the dutiful son had wanted to stay longer with his mother, but went back to detention as ordered.

When his bosom pal Fernando Poe Jr. died last December, Erap went to the wake of the frustrated presidential candidate and delivered a stirring (inciting?) necrological oration. Everybody thought he would stay longer for added effect, but he went back promptly to detention as agreed upon with the court.

It was easy for Mr. Estrada to have escaped from the minimally secured Veterans Memorial Medical Center in Quezon City where he was earlier detained, or from his Tanay villa where he is under some kind of relaxed house arrest. But he stays put.

In fact, twice during his bruising impeachment trial before the Senate in 2000, emissaries of then president-in-waiting Gloria Arroyo went to offer him a hassle-free exit if he would agree to sign a letter of resignation and live in comfortable exile. In both instances, he rejected the offers.

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CONCEPT OF BAIL: A mere recitation of these publicly known facts, I think, is enough to convince a reasonable judge that Mr. Estrada is not a flight risk, and therefore eminently entitled to the constitutionally guaranteed right to bail.

The main idea behind a bail bond or being released on recognizance (in the custody of a respected member of the community) is to put enough pressure on the accused to appear at the time and place dictated by the judge.

It does not make sense for a man who insists he is not guilty as charged to run away and thereby shatter the image of innocence he has painstakingly nurtured. Flight will destroy the elaborate scaffolding of innocence that Mr. Estrada has built around himself.

As I pointed out earlier in POSTSCRIPT, posting bail, even if it runs into millions, is not a punishment for some guilt or for a prima facie indication of it. The accused is still presumed innocent, so no punishment is due — assuming bail is construed, erroneously, as penalty for some evil deed.

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PALACE HAND: Who in Malacanang is behind the plot to go around the Supreme Court in working out control over the unopened Terminal 3 of the scandal-wracked Ninoy Aquino International Airport (Naia-3)?

The plot of buying out the problem of having to stare everyday at a $500-million-plus White Elephant and face damaging arbitration procedures in two places abroad cannot prosper without the green light from the Palace.

The events are unfolding at such incredible speed that the deed might be consummated before the general public is fully made aware of what is going on.

What is going on is that despite the voiding by the Supreme Court of the controversial contract of the Philippine International Air Terminals Co. (Piatco) to build and operate Naia-3, a local firm (the Manila Hotel) has bought control of Piatco.

Manila Hotel’s move will make business sense only if there is a guarantee that the contract will be reinstated either (1) with the reversal of the SC decision or (2) a new consortium can be passed off as the legitimate successor of a Piatco cleansed of its legal defects, or both.

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TWIN SCENARIOS: The first scenario (a reversal of the SC decision) is hypothetical, existing only in the realm of possibilities. It is a plot requiring an elaborate laying of the basis and the Herculean mobilization of resources.

Manila Hotel is not sure at the point of being able to reverse the SC decision on Piatco, but it already paid, it said, $200 million to buy into the company propped up by German investment. (But note that the authorized and paid up capital of Manila Hotel is reportedly only P1 billion, or $18 million.)

What or who assured Manila Hotel that it/he/she can work out a Supreme Court reconsideration and a reversal of its prior adverse decision? The implications for the high tribunal are not flattering.

The second scenario (a cleansed Piatco taking over a revalidated contract) can happen only with the connivance of Malacanang. You know what I mean, and it is not flattering to President Arroyo although it may be a big boost to the firm giving her legal advice.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of September 13, 2005)

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