'Untouchable' Filipinos Hear Gavel of Justice

IN the Philippines, where the lifestyles of the rich and powerful often mean never a worry about legalities, the short arm of the law is getting longer.

The conviction this week of Ferdinand Marcos Jr., son of the the late Philippine dictator, for tax evasion sent a message to upper class Filipinos that the wheels of justice turn equally for all.

The court sentenced Mr. Marcos, popularly known as ''Bongbong,'' to nine years in prison for evading taxes assessed at $333 from income earned when he was governor of his home province.

He joins a growing list of prominent Filipinos being clapped in jail. Time was when many rich people could get away with murder, literally. They escaped punishment through connivance with the police, courts, and politicians who exerted influence.

Observers see the trend in a more rigorous pursuit of justice arising from the return of democracy in 1986 after the ouster of the late Marcos. Citizens are now more alert to unlawfulness, the press more vigilant, and judges more independent. Also, President Fidel Ramos and his predecessor, Corazon Aquino, projected an image of uncorruptibility.

Recent additions to the Philippines rogues gallery include a municipal mayor of Manila and movie star Robin Padilla. A court also sentenced a senior police superintendent to prison for life for kidnapping a Taiwanese businessman for ransom.

Another ''untouchable,'' politician Antonio Sanchez, ended his decades-long reign over a province when a court sentence him to seven life terms for the brutal rape and murder of two college students. Also, Claudio Teehankee Jr., son of former chief justice of the Supreme Court, was sentenced to life after he shot dead two people for no apparent reason.

And then there is Imelda Marcos, famous widow of the late dictator, who is out on bail while appealing a 24-year jail sentence for graft.

Former Chief Justice Marcelo Fernan thinks the courts are asserting their independence. ''Unlike before, the judges were intimidated,'' says Mr. Fernan, who stepped down from the high tribunal to enter politics and was recently elected a senator. During the Marcos era only the dictator appointed the judges. Since democracy was restored, judges have been selected by an independent council.

But lawyer Frank Chavez who filed the nearly 100 criminal and tax evasion cases against the Marcoses when he was the solicitor general, credited the refreshing verdicts to public pressure. ''They were brought about mostly by public participation in denouncing injustice, violence, and corruption,'' Mr. Chavez says. An upsurge in crime that spiralled in the first years of democracy led to the birth of at least three pressure groups.

The movement for Restoration of Peace and Order and the Citizen's Action Against Crime, led by Teresita Ang-Lee, include supporters who take turns sitting in at every hearing of all cases, acting as pressure on judges. Another group, the Crusade Against Violence, is now gunning for Hubert Webb, son of Sen. Freddie Webb, as the principal suspect in the unsolved grisly murders of three women.

There has been slow reform to clean up the corrupt judiciary. But these efforts are paying off. Ms. Ang-See says the criminal justice system has been strengthened by a witness protection program. The media is also scrutinizing the judges. The press has been emboldened to watch all the celebrated cases.

''The information revolution has brought up a bigger middle class who demand fair play, accountability, and transparency. This is the end of the feudal relationships. The public mentality has changed,'' says Alex Magno, a political scientist.

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