Monday, August 29, 2005

The Challenge of Due Process

By Ricardo Saludo, Secretary of the Cabinet


In this grave situation, various groups take advantage of one another, manipulate situations for their own agenda, and create confusion among our people sometimes by projecting speculation or suspicion as proven fact, with the aim of grabbing power.

— Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, 10 July 2005

With the ongoing Congress deliberations on the impeachment complaints against President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, due process on the allegations against her has finally begun. After months of accusations aired in Congress and media, including what the CBCP described as “speculation and suspicion [projected] as proven fact” both accused and accusers will at last present and cross-examine all their evidence and arguments.

Due process is supposed to evens the odds for the accused, yet the odds are far from even for the President or for due process itself. Millions of Filipinos have already judged the First Family without the benefit of a fair trial, if recent surveys reflect public opinion. Due process too may have credibility problems, not because it is flawed, but because its even-handed proceedings and strict rulings will surely present a very different impression of events than the largely unchallenged accusations aired in current controversies.

One thing is therefore imperative for the impeachment and its rulings to win acceptance and bring stability. Proceedings should not only be conducted with unassailable fairness, but also be clearly explained and justified to a public already steeped in allegations and materials intended to incriminate. These claims have faced little opposition; lawyers of the accused have rightly kept their evidence and arguments hidden till due process starts.

It is good that our people had shown willingness in past celebrated cases to give due process its due, despite widespread belief in the guilt of personages implicated. When the five-member Agrava Fact-Finding Board was created in 1983, the running joke then was that only five people in the country did not know who killed Ninoy Aquino. Yet the nation followed the board's proceedings. In 2000, resignation calls resounded after Chavit Singson made his accusations. Yet people were glued to each episode of impeachment TV and only went to the streets when most senators voted to hide evidence.

Still, there are special problems in gaining credibility for the current impeachment. The dominance of the administration coalition is portrayed as a factor that could compromise the proceedings, especially if congressmen vote largely along partisan lines (as the U.S. Senate did in the Clinton impeachment trial). And there is the President’s trial by publicity in which many Filipinos have already passed judgment.

Believing a person guilty makes it easier to accept testimony against him, and harder to take in exonerating facts. Those who think President Arroyo culpable do not question a widely denied claim that at least 15 people participated in bribery at her home in the presence of so many possible whistleblowers, even though there was not a single rumor about the supposed event nearly one and a half years since. Her detractors are also persuaded by an alleged fraudster quoting the purported rantings of a drunken man.

By contrast, evidence and statements for the accused are disbelieved or even deemed incriminating. Susan Roces’s fuming words twisted the President’s apology into an admission of poll fraud. A leading newspaper headlined a story suggesting it was evasive for Malacañang to “clam up” after denying charges. Yet it is the accusers who must respond to denials by producing solid proof, not the accused who is presumed innocent. When jueteng witnesses regretted their testimony, the First Gentleman was blamed, even though Archbishop Oscar Cruz admitted that he had not stringently screened witnesses.

Also hard to impart at this time is the admissibility and validity of evidence. So much supposedly incriminating material, including weeks of hearsay testimony and different versions of the tapes, has proliferated and gained some credence among the public. It may prove difficult to justify why some of that has to be set aside.

The tapes are either falsified, manipulated, illegal, or some combination of the three. They may not be admissible as evidence in judicial, legislative and impeachment proceedings. And for any recording to be given evidentiary weight, it must be certified by impartial experts to contain real conversations of the parties said to have been wiretapped, and to be free from alterations. The CBCP has urged “a credible, independent process for authentication.” The same can be said for election documents released by the opposition.

Of the many people making accusations against the First Family, only two have offered more than just hearsay. Sandra Cam claims to have personally given a payoff to the President's brother-in-law, and former Palace functionary Michaelangelo Zuce alleged the bribing of election officials. But both have not produced indisputable corroborating evidence (Zuce’s scribbled lists require authentication). Still, if some widely broadcast testimony are deemed inadmissible or weak, would people devalue them in their minds?

A third issue demanding clear explanation would be the legal and technical aspects of the impeachment itself. Overruled congressmen can decry decisions based on what they consider trivial technicalities. Opponents of due process can exploit the public’s limited legal knowledge to cry injustice over hard-to-explain rulings. Some issues that may be controversial: Should congressmen consider only one complaint? Can the impeachment include actions and events prior to the current term of the President? Can electoral fraud be covered, or should it be left to the Presidential Electoral Tribunal?

Will rulings on such issues unleash thousands into the streets, as the Senate’s refusal to open the second envelope did in January 2001? Will the people accept an honest-to-goodness vote by the House to reject the complaints due to weak evidence?

The bottom line for the nation is simple: the current political controversies, particularly the tapes and jueteng issues, must be addressed through credible processes that obtain truth and justice. Besides Congress, other venues may be used, including the Sandiganbayan, civilian and military courts, and the proposed fact-finding commission. In this democratic endeavor, our people must be given a truthful explanation of all issues and decisions in the proceedings, not distortions designed to trigger EDSA 4.

The nation must also take to heart the central imperative of due process: allowing accused and accusers to present all evidence and arguments, and to fully assert their legally mandated rights, before judgment is passed. Only with careful deliberation and ample evidence in accordance with the law should a leader chosen by nearly 13 million voters in elections widely affirmed as credible, be prevented from fulfilling her sworn duties to the nation.

In this historic quest for truth and justice, which will again test the integrity and resilience of our national institutions, all participants must put the rule of law and the country’s welfare above personal and partisan interests. Will our leaders deliver this indispensable statesmanship? Will the media do its part in due process by educating the public about its tenets and presenting a balanced, impartial reportage of all contending arguments and evidence? And will the people accept and support a judgment based on the facts and the law, rather than unproven suspicion and speculation? The answers will determine not just the fate of the President, but the future of the Philippines.