Just Cause

It is to be expected — the conviction after 10 long years of Zaldy Ampatuan and some others for the murder of 58 people back in 2009. How can it be otherwise?

These facts stand out: the number of people that were killed in one incident that included many journalists, the manner of killing, and the notoriety of violence and impunity in the locality. The victims figured there was strength and safety in numbers, and by traveling in a convoy of vehicles in daylight, afforded coverage of their cause and the mantle of protection.

Ranged against them, the perpetrators who were probably thinking that “by amassing together, [they are trying] to scare us!” and “how dare they challenge our power frontally!” The result was described as the “trial of the century.”

Another thought they may have had was “so what, who would dare point to us, or who can arrest us?” Even if the case would get to court, there are a thousand ways to evade jail and imprisonment — to suborn or intimidate witnesses, bribe the prosecutors and judges, hire the best defense lawyer that money can buy. There are always punishing delays and the confusing rules.

Delay is built into the justice system. The adversarial system and the technical requirements of evidence and procedure that we mindlessly copied from the Spanish and American codes is a major reason. We forget that these countries have since undertaken major penal reforms. Our legislators meanwhile go about commenting on anything like gadflies while failing to study the root causes of the problems and the requisite solutions.

A case in point: our general penal code, the Revised Penal Code, dates back to 1930. It is way past time for a modern criminal code instead of continuously legislating piecemeal criminal statutes that conflict with one another and make everyone more and more confused.

Delay makes people forget. The string of Marcos cases are more than 20 years in the docket. What happened over the past 20 years? An ordinary estafa case takes three to five years to resolve. Pity the victims and glory to the fraudster.

Delay results in costs, not only in financial terms but the human costs of unresolved issues, open wounds, and mental anguish. Victims are victimized twice over and more.

The award of damages to the family of the victims may at least assuage their pain but it can never compensate. In jurisdictions that allow for blood money, i.e. payment for an injury or wrong, this is limited when the crime is a killing as there is no resurrection for the victim and no redemption for the victim’s family.

The endless motions and appeals are to be expected while the accused are out on bail. When bail is not granted, the wealthy accused are most probably in hospital suites, yet the subject of special motions. When the documentation is finally exhausted after another 10 or so years, the accused is by now staying in a prison suite with the amenities of a modern day luxury hotel. Who says crime does not pay?

If the convict behaves meekly, good conduct statutes allow for early release — unless a pardon was successfully lobbied. Either way, this results in a “get out of jail” pass. It is not as if, in the meantime, there are no trips out of prison for a hundred reasons.

Our national prison, Bilibid, is due for modernization and transfer. There is no sense for it to be occupying a few hundred hectares of prime property that can be used optimally for housing and better road connections in the south of the capital. Its location makes it difficult to manage, and in effect it is a very porous system the consequences of which we witness frequently.

There is no active and sustained effort from the administration to finally solve this well-known problem that infects the whole justice system. The corrections facility is the recipient of the “output” of the courts, that is, the convicted prisoners.

And so the wheel turns — a sentence, a conviction, and a judgment of guilt to restore our confidence and faith in the justice system. Justice is served today, for a day, and it means a little more peace this season for the families of the victims. The collective tragedy impelled their constant advocacy and vigilance to see the case till the end. Justice served? Yes, in a most dangerous way, in a most arduous manner, and in most complicated mode.