The Philippine National Police’s complaint of sedition/inciting to sedition, cyber libel, libel, obstruction of justice, and harboring a criminal against lawyers, priests, Vice-President Leni Robredo, and several opposition candidates for senator in last May’s elections is likely to make it to the courts. If it does, it will be one more instance that critics of the Duterte regime can cite to validate their view that only an international body can check human rights abuses in the Philippines because the justice system is not working as it should.
The Philippine National Police (PNP) complaint is based on the affidavit of one Peter Advincula, whom it had dismissed as a liar and criminal when he earlier alleged in video and in person that the family of President Rodrigo R. Duterte is deeply involved in the illegal drug trade. When he retracted that claim and instead said that the claims in the videos which he made and other allegations were lies and part of a wide-ranging conspiracy to discredit and oust Mr. Duterte from power and assure the victory of the opposition’s candidates for senator last May, the PNP took his word for it and filed the complaint before the Department of Justice (DoJ).
It was precisely on the argument that the Philippine justice system is intact and therefore functioning that former Duterte spokesperson Harry Roque and his successor Salvador Panelo condemned the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) resolution urging the UN to look into the human rights situation in the Philippines. (Roque, incidentally, claimed the opposite when he brought the case of broadcaster Alex Adonis, who had been convicted of libel and imprisoned in 2008, to the UN Human Rights Committee in 2011.)
The assumption in Roque’s and Panelo’s statement is that “functioning” means able to do its work of apprehending criminal suspects and building cases against them (the PNP’s task), evaluating complaints and cases filed (the DoJ’s mandate), and the courts’ trying those accused of violating the law. In contrast, these elements of the justice system have been so weakened in certain failed states that they might as well not exist at all.
By that definition the system may indeed be, though somewhat tenuously, “functioning,” but whether it is impartial, and willing and able to fairly determine the guilt or innocence of anyone, particularly those whom the regime regards as its enemies, and to free the innocent and punish the guilty, is even more crucial than its just being there and its bureaucrats’ going about their duties. Justice, after all, means punishing only the guilty and absolving the innocent, as well as assuring the fitness of the penalty to the crime.
Partisanship is anathema to justice, and what is more than obvious in the PNP complaint is its use of Advincula and his videos as the excuse to silence some of the most consistent critics of the regime it serves, and to oust Vice-President Robredo so she can be replaced by a Duterte surrogate. The law and the institutions, means, and processes through which it is enforced are in that sense being used as weapons against regime critics and opponents as well as ordinary citizens exercising their right to free expression and the civic duty of holding government accountable.
Whether getting justice from the justice system is still possible is the key issue and needs to be asked at every stage of the process that supposedly guarantees justice to everyone.
The justice system’s being a virtual mockery of itself starts at the level of the police, whose alleged practice of planting evidence has become practically indisputable. The number of extrajudicial killings it is accused of at the very least also raises the question of whether, rather than being an impartial enforcer of the law, the police are instead acting as the instrument of the lawless violence favored by the provincial despotism now in control of the Philippine state.
The system malfunction continues at the DoJ level, where there are allegations that one’s political convictions and affiliations determine whether a case is filed against an individual or not, quite independently of the credibility of supposed witnesses and documentary and other evidence. It continues in the courts, in which too many judges err on the side of power and against the poor.
But in addition to this already reprehensible reality is the demonstrated capacity of the same system to be so partisan as to enable the powerful, the wealthy, and the well-connected to escape punishment even if convicted. The more recent demonstration of how broken the system is the case of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos’ partner and accomplice, Imelda Marcos, whose conviction on seven counts of graft has not led to her serving even one day of her sentence of six to 11 years for each count, and certainly not to her perpetual disqualification from public office. In contrast, her appeal for bail having been denied, opposition Senator Leila de Lima has been in detention for three years on drug charges based on the testimony of convicted felons.
Meanwhile, those responsible for the extrajudicial killing of thousands of individuals accused of offenses ranging from drug dealing, to aiding the armed rebellion, to being a human rights defender, a Lumad teacher, or a lawyer for the poor, have not even been identified, much less tried and penalized.
Deny it as those in power will, these are truths everyone including their allies know. The current debate on the reimposition of the death penalty is illustrative of that shared assumption among those who know only too well how the system can be manipulated to serve partisan ends.
The inclusion of plunder among the crimes punishable with death has been opposed by most senators and congressmen, with one of them, recently elected Senator Ramon Revilla, Jr., arguing that a plunder charge can be politicized. Accused of plunder in 2014, Revilla was exonerated early this year. His acquittal raised a number of questions, among them why he is being asked to return the money involved if he was indeed innocent. Those issues aside, however, his opposition to the inclusion of plunder among the offenses a restored death penalty would penalize is premised on the assumption that the justice system is not working as it should.
His colleagues in Congress share that reservation, with some arguing in so many words, as Revilla implied, that even if innocent an individual can be accused of plunder and can very easily be convicted or acquitted depending on one’s politics. It is a roundabout way of acknowledging that the so-called justice system, far from functioning to protect the innocent and punish the guilty, too often ends up condemning the innocent and exonerating and setting free even the most vicious criminals.
The justice system is broken due to the flagrant partisanship and transparent political agenda of those who are supposed to make it work and to fix it if it is malfunctioning. The PNP complaint against Vice-President Robredo and 35 others, in favor of which the DoJ will almost certainly decide, will not only loudly and clearly proclaim that fact to the rest of the world. It will also invite international responses similar to the UNHRC resolution. Apparently, however, that possibility has escaped the Duterte regime, so focused is it on silencing criticism and crushing the opposition so it can indefinitely stay in power.
Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro).