Among the reactions to the guilty verdict on former president Joseph Estrada are those that ecstatically hail it as an indication that the justice system works. “Justice in this country is truly blind,” says this chorus. The justice system doesn’t fear power, and in fact ignored it by finding Estrada guilty of plunder and sentencing him to life.

Others take a more, shall we say regional, view. The verdict should make Filipinos hold their heads high, especially before the Japanese and the Koreans. That verdict proves that as in Japan and Korea, there is honor in public service because the justice system doesn’t net only the small fry, it also hooks the big fish. Why Japan and Korea? Because it’s those countries where public officials not only admit wrong doing, they also resign in shame and even kill themselves for failures and offenses that in Filipino eyes seem like trifles.

These reactions though misplaced are understandable, given the Filipino experience with a justice system whose partiality and malleability most Filipinos know only too well. That experience has made justice even of the simplest, most basic kind a prime Filipino frustration.

The fact that the evil not only escape retribution but even prosper while good deeds are often punished validates the need for fundamental changes in the political and social systems reflected in the inequities of the justice system. But Filipinos are notoriously unwilling and unable to take that step, thus their collective sigh of relief that the system doesn’t need changing because it works, after all.

The slightest sign that anything works helps convince Filipinos that they don’t need to change anything, change being the one thing Filipinos in their millions are united against. And that’s despite the centuries of injustice, mass misery and poverty to which a political class with a history of betrayal that goes back to Magellan has condemned it.

Thus the effort to be upbeat and to imagine a silver lining in every rain-cloud.

The silver lining in the Estrada case is not solely what it’s supposed to say about the justice system. There is also the supposed message the verdict sends to other officials– from mayor to governor, to congressman, senator and president– that high crimes like plunder will not go unpunished.

Unfortunately the message that’s beginning to take shape as far as the Estrada case is concerned is nothing of the kind– and might even end up as the exact opposite.

In the wake of his conviction, and the more than likely possibility that appealing the verdict won’t prosper, Estrada has shifted from his mock heroic “I’m prepared to go to prison” pose to an “I’m willing to accept an amnesty” mode.

The charitable can interpret this as an attempt to trap the Arroyo regime into issuing an amnesty proclamation that would cover plunder. In addition to being legally flawed, such a proclamation would also be a public relations disaster for the regime. Not only would it make a mockery of the Anti-Plunder Act, it would also too obviously apply to the plunderers that infest the Arroyo regime itself.

But that’s being charitable to Estrada as well as underestimating Arroyo legal adviser Sergio Apostol, who immediately snapped that what Estrada should ask for is a presidential pardon and not an amnesty.

About a pardon Apostol was unusually forthcoming. If Estrada abandons the idea of filing a motion for reconsideration before the Sandiganbayan anti-graft court, and instead applies for a pardon, said Apostol, the Arroyo government could immediately process the application.

Interior Secretary Puno echoed the subtext in Apostol’s statement, declaring that the regime could pardon Estrada, but that he had to apply for it first.

Will Estrada apply for a pardon? I suggest that he will. Nothing is impossible under the Philippine sun, and 40 years in prison is the same as a death sentence for someone who’s 70. Will Arroyo grant it? I suggest that she will, after a reasonably indecent interval-meaning when no one’s looking, and when even the so-called opposition has become even less interested in the subject as it is now.

An Estrada pardon can always be justified in terms of the usual “reconciliation” clichés. Most Filipinos will buy it the way they’ve bought the argument that cheaters shouldn’t be punished because everyone cheats, anyway.

It would also further consolidate Arroyo’s hold on power by demonstrating to Estrada loyalists that their idol has finally acknowledged the legality of the Arroyo presidency. When that happens she can always tell the Japanese and the Koreans that it was necessary to pardon Estrada to spare Philippine officialdom from worrying about their fate once their terms of office ends. She was only being compassionate. The real message then, however, would be for all the plunderers of which the Philippines has an ample supply not to worry, you can always be pardoned.


Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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