Parsing justice in the Philippines – RTÉ World Report/The Diplomat

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Presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda speaks to press in Manila (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

MANILA – A poster at the Paranaque city hall in Manila reads ‘Uphold Judicial Independence,’ claiming that the rights of chief justice Renato Corona are being trampled by the Philippine government and suggesting that rule of law in the almost-100 million population, 7000-island nation is at risk.

It sounds right-on – after all even hardened autocrats pay lip service to lofty abstractions like ‘rule-of-law’. But the chief justice in question is in the midst of an impeachment trial for abuse of office. A so-called midnight appointment’ by former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, Mr Corona took offce 2 days before she stepped down and Benigno ‘Noynoy’ Aquino III won a May 2010 election – partly on a platform of rule-of-law reform and curbing graft.

When the Aquino government sought to stop Arroyo – who is herself accused of corruption and rigging elections – from traveling abroad for medical treatment for what she claims is a life-threatening bone illness, the courts intervened and sought to overrule the government travel ban on the former president, who is now a heavily-bandaged congress representative for Pampanga in central Luzon.

That the supreme court recently decided to break up the Aquino family estate – a plantation called Hacienda Luisita 60 miles north of Manila – and distribute almost 11,000 acres of land to over 6000 farmworkers – only adds to the intrigue in a country where calls for land reform have long gone unheeded by powerful landed aristocrats.

But Aquino’s media team have been keen to dismiss any link to the impeachment, however, and Ricky Carandang said that “we were in favour of the redistribution and supported the decision,” during an in interview on Thursday at Manila’s Malacanan Palace.

Similarly, when asked whether the case against Corona was merely part of a broader factional arm-wrestle, president spokesperson Edwin Lacierda said that “this is in fact about our commitment to hold all officials accountable and is not about attacking the judiciary.”

If a trial enmeshed in dynastic intrigue and possible score-settling was not compelling enough, last week the defence had ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales testify in an attempt to clear Corona of allegations he held secret bank accounts. But that backfired spectacularly, when the ombudsman instead alleged that the chief justice had over US$28million dollars in 82 different accounts.

“We are giving them just enough rope to hang themselves,” said Edsal Tupaz, a lawyer working for the prosecution. He said that ombudsman Corona’s revelations last week were “a game changer.” But next Tuesday the chief justice will testify, and his defense team said Friday that it has evidence to refute some of the allegations against Mr Corona.

However journalist and academic Luis Teodoro cautioned that the Philippine legal system has major weaknesses. “One of the problems in this country is that is difficult to prove a lot of things,” he said, a reminder perhaps that neither defence nor prosecution can take anything for granted in this case.

Inside barangay Don Bosco (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Back at the Paranaque city hall, a few doors down from the poster backing the chief justice, another hearing was taking place – this time in a murder case from one of Manila’s slums and a reminder of how the country’s legal system works for the tens of millions of Filipinos living on the breadline.

*Roger Buendia was 17 when the alleged crime took place, and though kept in a youth detention centre, this was in the same building as adult criminals. “The place was filthy and when it rained the floor welled-up with water and we couldn’t sleep,” he winced. That was the least of his worries, however.

NGO Preda assists minors in detention in the Philippines, facilitating them pass at least some of their sentences at Preda centres outside capital Manila – rather than in jails in Manila where sometimes they are kept with adults, or, in some cases, are locked-up on trumped-up or false charges by corrupt cops seeking to boost promotion chances by scoring enough arrests.

Francis Bermido Jr., a Preda social worker, took up the story. “Some of the older prisoners downstairs were threatening Roger because of the murder charge – some said they knew the man he’s accused of killing.” Preda secured a court order allowing Roger to stay with the organisation- for his own safety.

Mother of the accused Selena wiped away tears while talking at the cramped yet neat family apartment in the barangay Don Bosco slum, a couple miles from the city hall. She sells halo-halo for a living, and handing me one of these ice-cold Filipino desserts, she said she has mixed feelings about her son staying at Preda.

“Preda is so far away and I cannot take time that much to visit because I need to make ends meet here”, she sighed. ”But It is better than the jail, where they treat the prisoners worse than dogs.”

*pseudonym used to protect the accused’s identity

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