House Speaker Jose de Venecia’s proposal for an “all encompassing” amnesty has been criticized for “legal infirmities” by the lawyers in the Senate. But some senators are giving it the benefit of the doubt. Senators Aquilino Pimentel and Panfilo Lacson are keeping an open mind, and so is Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago.
Former judge Santiago said she isn’t objecting to the idea itself, only to the “facile presumptions that have no legal basis” that the de Venecia proposal seems to be making.
The de Venecia proposal would grant amnesty to so-called “enemies of the state,” but seems fixated on amnestying former President Joseph Estrada, whose trial for plunder is up for decision by the Sandiganbayan anti-graft court.
Raul Gonzalez, whose views on legal issues is a fairly accurate gauge of the sentiments of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, has in fact told the media that Estrada could be eligible for amnesty, should de Venecia’s bill pass Congress.
It all depends on Mrs. Arroyo, said Gonzalez. Neither would an amnesty for Estrada depend on an admission of guilt. Whether he would be made to admit guilt or not is “a prerogative of the President,” continued Gonzalez.
The government’s presumed top lawyer seems to have again gotten the law all wrong, as usual.
An amnesty is in the first place limited to political offenses, said Santiago. Plunder, the crime of which Estrada is accused, is not a political offense like rebellion, treason, sedition, or coup d’etat, which means that the apparent object of de Venecia’s amnesty would not qualify for it. Besides which, said Santiago, Philippine jurisprudence is clear about it: anyone seeking to avail of amnesty must admit his or her guilt.
Estrada has refused to admit guilt, and so has former Navy liteutenant, now Senator Antonio Trillanes IV, who is accused of leading the failed 2003 Oakwood mutiny. “Are President Estrada and Senator Trillanes willing to admit guilt? They have both entered pleas of not guilty.”
There is also ticklish issue of “enemies of the state,” to which description of himself Estrada has taken exception–as have the leaders and members of organizations, most of them legal, that the military has tagged with that label.
The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, for example, has been fighting that label since it was first attached to it in 2005, having committed no crime its leaders can think of–except that of encouraging the responsible and vigorous exercise of press freedom. The Constitution protects that freedom, but it has become an offense during the Arroyo watch because it’s led to the public disclosure of such embarrassments as the “Hello Garci” tapes and the various shady deals the regime is known for.
There are also other groups like the party list organizations the regime loves to hate, and which it has also tagged as “enemies of the state.” It will be a rainy day in the Sahara when Bayan Muna et.al. admit to the offenses their leaders and members are accused of, such as mass murder and diverting government funds to the New People’s Army.
While de Venecia’s proposal does seem to be focused on Estrada, it will have to have a universal application–and the universality of it is premised on the concept of “enemies of the state,” to which category, as nebulously conceived by the Philippine military, no sane person and not even Estrada would agree to belonging.
And yet an admission of guilt is the core premise of any amnesty worthy of that name. The South African government of Nelson Mandela declared an amnesty in the 1990s for all human rights offenders during the apartheid period. But that amnesty was premised on the amnestied’s full admission of their roles in the crimes of the apartheid era so that the country could put that episode behind it.
The Mandela government had the full force of its moral authority behind it when it declared an amnesty for the sake of reconciliation.
De Venecia’s proposal does claim to be based on an effort at reconciliation, and the regime of which he is a part does have the power to issue an amnesty proclamation. But does it have the moral authority to forgive and forget (and acknowledging and then forgetting past offenses is in fact the intent of amnesty), given its own grave offenses to which, like Estrada, it has never admitted?
De Venecia has referred to past amnesties, among them that implemented during the Fidel Ramos administration. He forgets that there is a difference between the Ramos watch and the Arroyo autocracy. That difference lies in the fact that while the Ramos regime jerry-rigged a moral authority of sorts by such gestures as the repeal of the anti-subversion law, the enactment of the party list act, and the creation of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, the only gesture this regime has been generous with are extra-judicial killings and various offenses against the Constitution.