Justice vs. forgiveness: fresh battle in the Philippines

Like other former leaders, Estrada has not escaped troubles just by leaving office.

Former leader Joseph Estrada left the presidential palace in a hurry: Half-emptied cabinets were left flung open, a machine to shuffle the tiles for mah-jongg, the game he liked to play late into the night, was left behind.

Now begins the slower process of examining whether the high-stakes dealings Mr. Estrada engaged in during his 2-1/2-year tenure should translate into some kind of punishment.

A week after Estrada's impeachment trial fell apart, a team of prosecutors says they are launching a criminal investigation into allegations that Estrada pocketed millions of dollars while in office. To many here, that he agreed to step down on Saturday falls short of the need to take public officials to task for their misdeeds. The matter hits the Philippines at a time when a number of former world leaders are finding that forfeiting the reins of power hardly spells the end of their legal troubles.

Soon after successor President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo started her first day on the job, government ombudsman Aniano Desierto said he would begin a 60-day preliminary investigation into the evidence against Estrada. Mr. Desierto says he will examine six charges: plunder, misuse of funds, graft, perjury, bribery, and possession of unexplained wealth.

Plunder, or stealing from the state, is a relatively new category of capital crime here that carries with it the option of the death penalty. And though Mrs. Arroyo says that justice must take its course, officials close to the new president doubt her mettle to spend precious political capital on prosecuting a toppled leader who still enjoys wide support among poor Filipinos. "It's not a priority for her," says one aide. "Politically, it would be more comfortable to let him go."

Some question whether Filipinos will muster the political and moral will necessary to prosecute Estrada for crimes that actually are punishable by death. Activists here say that acting simply on what seems the easy, congenial thing to do will not score points in the battle against corruption. And that, in essence, is what the entire "people power" movement - as resurrected in a faster, peaceful replay of the 1986 overthrow of dictator Ferdinand Marcos - was all about.

At that time, the long-ruling Marcos was allowed to take refuge in Hawaii, escaping prosecution.

"We will not make the same mistake we made in 1986 with letting Marcos go," says Dan Songco, the national coordinator of Code NGO, a coalition of several clean government and other public interest groups.

Code NGO and others are also demanding the prosecution of some of Estrada's so-called cronies, underworld-style businessmen who may have profited even more from his years in office. But two of them already left the country on Friday, as did Estrada's lead defense lawyer, who was implicated in the establishment of Estrada's fictitious bank accounts during the trial.

Legal advocacy groups such as the Volunteers Against Crime and Corruption (VACC) say they also want to begin a much broader campaign of prosecuting other politicians and affiliated profiteers indicated in wrongdoing over the past decade; virtually none of whom has been tried or otherwise held accountable for allegations of graft. The VACC has kept copies of all the evidence that was to be introduced in the Estrada impeachment trial, which will now be used to attempt to bring criminal and civil charges against the former president.

With some concern that they might end up running a never-ending witch hunt, Mr. Songco says the new anticorruption crusade will not become a national pastime or a tool for political vendettas. "We cannot be rash and try to file charges against everyone," he says. "We are restoring order here, and restoring the rule of law."

"This is a healing process," Songco adds, "and we have to correct the mistakes of the past."

The allusion to "healing the nation" is an image that seems to be cropping up again and again in countries emerging from periods of difficult relations with their leaders. In the era since South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission sought to air the sins of apartheid as a sort of public catharsis, few leaders who have left office amid scandal have been able to slip off into comfortable exile. From former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet to Peru's ousted Alberto Fujimori to corruption charges against Indonesia's former and current presidents - the globe appears to have an increasing number of leaders and ex-leaders wanted for trial.

Had former US President Bill Clinton not worked out a special deal that makes him immune from further prosecution, he too might be fighting legal charges after his term expired.

In the difficult job of drawing the line between high crimes and bad governance, Estrada does not evoke nearly as much emotional sentiment as, for example, Mr. Pinochet and Mr. Fujimori. Although he appears to have accumulated massive amounts of wealth from public funds, he is not accused of having behaved brutally so much as boorishly. His most glaring error, some here muse, was not in that he apparently stole, but how clumsily ostentatious he was about it. Filipinos even have a word for that kind of graft: garapal, or theft which is vulgar and tasteless.

But in this gracious, primarily Catholic country, forgiveness seems to be something of a national virtue. It seems possible that just as Imelda Marcos - the former president's wife whose shoe collection elevated her to world infamy - eventually returned to the Philippines to live out a peaceful life, Estrada may be more likely destined for clemency than lethal injection.

Still, that drive for more accountability throughout the region may mean Estrada cannot simply be excused with a slap on the wrist. The former president, now at home in the Manila suburb he was elected mayor of 30 years ago, says he will not try to flee the country.

The problem in Southeast Asia, notes Georgetown University Prof. James Clad, is that "there is a lack of deep roots of institutions, and the way that Estrada left weakens the level of institutions." He says, "The question is: Is there some kind of institutional accountability that is independent of personal control?"

Without some legal followup, Clad posits, leaders here and elsewhere will never fear the potential consequences of abusing their power.

"I think that it is probably a good idea that there are charges in criminal court," says the Southeast Asian Studies professor, "and if Estrada is convicted it's probably good if he serves some time, because that makes the point that there's some kind of accountability."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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