Justice vs. Forgiveness: Fresh Battle in the Philippines ; like Other Former Leaders, Estrada Has Not Escaped Troubles Just by Leaving Office

By Ilene R. Prusher writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, January 23, 2001 | Go to article overview

Justice vs. Forgiveness: Fresh Battle in the Philippines ; like Other Former Leaders, Estrada Has Not Escaped Troubles Just by Leaving Office


Ilene R. Prusher writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


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. …

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