Sandiganbayan “changed” plunder law to keep Arroyo in jail

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If you were made aware of the excuses given by the Sandiganbayan’s First Division for its refusal to grant bail to former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, you would be very, very angry. You’d wonder how such an utter distortion of the law could occur in this country that is supposedly under the rule of law.

You’d tend to believe the widespread rumors in legal circles that this division of the Sandiganbayan firmly bears the mark of President Aquino’s thumb, and that he or his representative has directly called several times the members of this body to emphasize to them that at all costs, they should not and cannot grant bail to the 68-year old grandmother who has a life-threatening illness. (The First Division consists of Efren de la Cruz as presiding judge, with Rafael Lagosa and Rodolfo Ponferrada as members. Justices Alex Quiroz and Napoleon Inoturon were recently added as members of the division.)

No wonder, international lawyer Amal Clooney was so horrified at the blatant disregard for the rule of law in Arroyo’s incarceration that she took the case to the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. No wonder that in just two months’ time, the Group issued its conclusion that the former president is a victim of arbitrary detention, that she should be immediately released, and that she should even sue for damages.

No wonder that the Supreme Court two weeks ago in an unprecedented move barred the Sandiganbayan from proceeding with the case until it has ruled on the petition filed by Arroyo’s lawyer, Estelito Mendoza.

Exasperated over the Sandiganbayan’s blatant disregard of the law, Mendoza has asked the Supreme Court itself to dismiss the plunder charges against the former president.

It is a test whether this nation still has a court of last resort to check the distortions of the law the Aquino regime has managed to undertake just to keep his predecessor in jail for the past three years. Whether it is an act of vengeance over some slight in the past, or fear of her political clout, or a false trophy to brag about for his anti-corruption drive – we can only surmise.

The case filed at the Court involved Arroyo’s approval requested of her for the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office’s (PCSO) P366 million intelligence and confidential funds (CIF) in 2008. Such approval is ‘ministerial,’ i.e., a routine required by a Marcos Letter of Instruction No. 1282 of 1983 (which has the power of law) not only in the PCSO’s case but in similar funds, released by all presidents including Aquino.

For some reason, it became a cause célèbre – a false one, though – by the strident anti-Arroyo movement, with Senate hearings undertaken in 2011. These hearings, however, yielded no anomalous findings other than that funds were used to donate SUVs to bishops stationed in the boondocks and to help raise the blood-money for OFWs convicted of some crime and due for beheading in Saudi Arabia.

Aquino’s agenda, though, was to jail for whatever reason, Arroyo, who he sees in his twisted mind as someone like Marcos was to his mother, Cory.

To conceal his role behind it, Aquino got Akbayan leader Riza Hontiveros-Baraquel and her associate, military mutineer Danilo Lim, to file a plunder case against Arroyo for her approval of the PCSO CIF funds. Aquino rewarded her for her service by including her in his 2013 senatorial slate. Lim was given a plum post at the Bureau of Customs as deputy commissioner for intelligence.

Hontiveros lost in that election and now has the gall and shamelessness to run for the Senate again under Aquino’s party in 2016. She is campaigning early, using government funds for airing TV ads disguised as public messages from Philhealth, where Aquino had positioned her as a board member. Why would anyone vote for such a hypocritical political mercenary?

You wouldn’t believe what Hontiveros and Lim submitted as evidence of plunder and witness against Arroyo.

The transcript of the Senate hearings – peppered with charges being hurled left and right for the anti-Arroyo peanut gallery without any shred of proof! Their witness? The Senate clerk attesting to the authenticity of the transcript!

It’s been a Kafkaesque trial for Arroyo. The Commission on Audit chairman, during which term the use of the confidential funds was cleared by lower ranking auditors, was included among those accused, apparently to force him to bear false witness against Arroyo. He didn’t. Eight of the 10 accused (mostly PCSO trustees) and detained were granted bail, except Arroyo and the poor PCSO budget officer, Benigno Aguas.

The prosecution presented about eight witnesses, all of whom were military men doing intelligence work. They merely explained what “intelligence fund” meant, and it quickly became clear their presence at the hearing was a trick employed by Aquino’s lawyers to prolong the trial. They, of course, knew nothing about PCSO’s intelligence funds.

Arroyo’s lawyers pleaded to the Court several times: Arroyo just approved the intelligence funds, as was required of her to prove such funds by most agencies. Not a centavo of it passed through her – as mandated, it is the board which allocates its use, it is the PCSO management which “liquidates” it, i.e., submits the receipts proving it has been used legally.

Had there been something wrong with the way it was used, the COA would not have cleared it and would have asked the PCSO officials to return the money. If the charge was plunder or even malversation of funds, please show some proof that the funds were illegally used or ended up in Arroyo’s pocket or any PCSO official’s bank account.

By using excuses such as what they cited for not dismissing the case, or for not even granting bail to Arroyo, these [expletive-deleted] in robes did the unthinkable: they altered the Philippines’ plunder law itself!

The plunder and anti-graft laws of this land categorically require proof that funds allegedly stolen from government ended up in the pockets of the accused. In former president Joseph Estrada’s case, the prosecutors proved with bank accounts and even witnesses (bank officers) that jueteng money and tobacco excise tax funds turned up in his bank accounts.

Amazingly, for judges of their stature to be in special court devoted to prosecuting graft, the Sandiganbayan in one of its resolutions denying Arroyo bail eliminated this well known requirement for proving plunder or just plain graft, and declared, utterly without any basis either in terms of the law or Supreme Court jurisprudence:

“Thus a ‘raid on the public treasury’ can be said to have been achieved through the pillaging or looting of public coffers either through misuse, misappropriation or conversion, without need of establishing gain or profit to the raider. Otherwise stated, once a “raider” gets material possession of a government asset through improper means and has free disposal of the same, the raid or pillage is completed.”

The Sandiganbayan wove a web of fallacy in which it was itself entangled when it pointed out: “What [the] accused Arroyo forgets is that although she did not actually commit any ‘overt act’ of illegally amassing CIF funds, her act of approving not only the additional CIF funds but also their releases, aided and abetted [the] accused Uriarte’s successful raids on the public treasury.”

But the essence of the plunder law, if you will, is about “illegally amassing” funds from government, Arroyo’s lawyer Mendoza has argued in his petition at the Court.

If Arroyo, as the Sandiganbayan itself said, did not illegally amass such funds, how could she be accused of plunder under that law? Approving the release of funds to a public official who subsequently steals them is not the kind of crime punishable under the plunder law. It is the official’s own act of theft of public funds that qualifies as plunder in that case. The Sandiganbayan invented such crime.

Arroyo’s trial has become a theater of the absurd, not much different from the Inquisition of the medieval ages:

She is guilty of plunder even if it is not proven that she used the PCSO intelligence funds for her private use. And the definition of plunder or “raid on the public treasury” by the Sandiganbayan?” It is the improper acquisition and illegal use of the intelligence funds that amount to a raid on the public treasury.

How does it define “improper use?” “The encashment of the checks, which named her as the ‘payee,’ gave (PCSO) General Manager Uriarte material possession of the CIF funds which she disposed of at will,” the Sandiganbayan pontificated.

One’s mind reels in the language games the Sandiganbayan plays just to keep Arroyo in jail. Why would they put on the line their careers in the legal system by making absurd legal arguments?

But the funds were used for legitimate purposes, as the COA concluded, Arroyo’s lawyers claimed. Not a single witness out of the 21 the prosecution presented, not any of the 637 exhibits it presented, showed that any money from the CIF was used illegally.

“We will see, but in the meantime, Arroyo stays in jail,” the Sandiganbayan in so many words said.

This is the worst kind of oppression, as hellish as in medieval times when the Inquisition would torture heretics to confess, which then was taken as proof of their guilt.

A nation’s entire system of the rule of law is undermined when a law is distorted by justices in order to persecute a political figure, just to follow the orders of a ruthless President.