The dimensions of impunity

Joseph Estrada, Rodrigo Duterte, Gloria Arroyo and Imelda Marcos
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Those Filipinos aware of the record-breaking looting of the public treasury by the Marcos kleptocracy are hailing the Sandiganbayan’s conviction of Imelda Marcos on seven counts of graft. They had already lost hope that any of the billions diverted to Swiss bank accounts, real estate, and jewelry and art collections in Bern, Paris and other world capitals will ever be recovered, or that any form of legal retribution against the thieves is forthcoming, but have been heartened by the graft court’s decision 27 years after charges were filed against the Marcos family matriarch.  

Imelda Marcos is of course the former First Lady, currently a congresswoman, and in line to replace, through the 2019 elections and in the manner of the dynasties that are ruining this country, her daughter Imee as governor of Ilocos Norte.

The anti-corruption court’s 15th division sentenced the late unlamented Ferdinand Marcos’ 89-year widow to imprisonment of from six to eleven years for each count of graft that it declared her guilty of. If the sentence is ever carried out, she will spend at least 42 years in prison — an eventuality that, unless she lives to be 131 years old, seems unlikely.  But there are reasons other than her age which make it doubtful that she will ever serve that sentence. 

As alleged by the complaint against her in 1992, she was found to have made a total of $200 million bank  transfers to seven Swiss foundations of her own creation during her incumbency as Metro Manila Governor, a post her dictator-husband tailor-made for her. 

But like most of the killers and all of the masterminds in the killing of journalists; the policemen and their vigilante surrogates responsible for the tens of thousands of  extrajudicial killings of suspected drug pushers and users; the military goons and their paramilitary junior partners  responsible for the murder of Lumad leaders, farmers, workers,  human rights defenders, people’s lawyers,  judges, political activists, and reformist local officials; the convicted but pardoned plunderers  still lording it over in government; the drug lords and their well-placed accomplices in the Bureau of Customs who regularly  smuggle billions of pesos worth of drugs into the country; the bureaucrat capitalists and government criminals  whose access to pricey lawyers  enables them to escape prosecution; and the handful of wealthy and well-connected denizens of this country who have murdered and robbed their way to the top of the bureaucracy — like them, it’s almost certain that she won’t spend a single day or night in any of the country’s hellish prisons for the poor. 

If she’s ever arrested at all, it’s more than likely that she’ll be held in some air conditioned, amenity-filled government facility, or in the comfort of a high-end hospital suite. But even that may not happen. It’s not just because, her conviction not being final, she can still file a motion for reconsideration before the Sandiganbayan or because she can also file an appeal before the Supreme Court, the current composition and mindset of which does not encourage faith in the so-called justice system. 

Already afoot are attempts to keep her out of prison. Only hours after the decision was promulgated last November 9, her ally Senator Cynthia Villar, who is running for Senator with Imee Marcos, was already saying that Imelda Marcos’ advanced age should be a militating factor against her arrest, with the PNP later echoing the same sentiment. In this country of “humanitarian” considerations only for the big bureaucrats accused of such crimes as plunder and corruption, it is almost certain that she will escape imprisonment on the basis of that hoary excuse. 

We have seen some of that in the recent past. There is the outstanding  example of former Marcos partner and functionary Juan Ponce Enrile, who is free on bail in consideration of his age, but who’s apparently strong enough to appear in media interviews as well as energetic enough to once again run for the Senate. 

Like Manila mayor and former President Joseph Estrada, who is a convicted plunderer, Imelda Marcos can also be pardoned, should, by some miracle, her conviction hold. Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo has declared that Malacanang respects the decision, but as the entire country should know by now, no word from the Palace is really worth much. President Rodrigo Duterte has time and again shown that he can modify or even contradict whatever his minions say. He is himself also known for saying one thing today and another tomorrow, as well as for doing something he said he wouldn’t do — and for not doing something  he said he would. 

What these evasions and excuses are all about is impunity: the exemption from punishment of wealthy, powerful and well-connected wrongdoers, which is part of the very culture — the way of doing things — of this benighted country. It is not uniquely characteristic of the current regime, but has been part of Philippine reality for decades.

Already in current use in the areas of conflict on the planet, and descriptive of how it has become the rule for the killers of journalists in various countries, the phrase “culture of impunity” was first used in 2003 by the New York-based press freedom watch group Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) to describe how the killers of journalists in the Philippines and the masterminds behind them have been escaping punishment since the Marcos period. 

But the phrase doesn’t apply only to the fact that it has become normal for the killers of journalists to escape punishment in what passes for democratic rule in the Philippines.  It applies as well to the legions of wrong-doers and criminals in the pay of the powerful who have made getting justice in this country elusive, problematic and even dangerous, as the cases of the lawyers and human rights defenders who have been threatened, harassed and murdered for defending the poor and marginalized have again and again demonstrated.

While none of the military and police personnel, paramilitaries, dynasts, warlords, local tyrants and land grabbers responsible for even the most heinous, most brutal and most inhuman crimes have been punished or even prosecuted, the leaders and advocates of, and the poor and the marginalized themselves — peasants, workers, indigenous people — are often accused of and charged with the most outrageously manufactured crimes, among them murder, illegal possession of firearms, kidnapping, etc. as substitutes for their real “offense”: that of defending the rights of the poor as well as their own right to life, due process, and justice.

The term “double standard” has been used to label it, but doesn’t quite describe    what’s been happening in this country since the killers of Andres Bonifacio and Antonio Luna got away with murder over a century ago. What it is is exactly that — a culture of impunity, that in the case of the Marcoses and their ilk exempts them from accountability for any crime, anomaly, or plain offense against the civilized standards of behavior that should guide a truly human society.

The only consolation — the booby prize–the conviction of Imelda Marcos has made possible is its contributing to the imperative of combating the Marcos family’s attempts to prettify the outrage that was martial law. It should help convince even the most uninformed — but let’s not hold our breath waiting for it — that it was a period of violence, plunder and unprecedented theft of the country’s resources, as well as a premeditated conspiracy against the future. It’s not much of a prize, and the most that can be expected in the present circumstances. But nothing is forever, and if history is any guide, these too should pass, and the day of reckoning — impunity’s end — break even in these sorry isles.

First published in BusinessWorld. Photo from Philippine News Agency/PCOO.

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