Government News Analysis Reforms

Justice – blinded not blind

Wooden justice gavel and block with brass

The noose is tightening around the neck of embattled Philippine senator, Leila De Lima, as more damning testimony – this time from her former lover/driver, Ronnie Dayan – is revealed and the case against her, for her alleged involvement in narcotics racketeering while she was the country’s top justice officer, is bumped up to the next level.

Snatched from hiding, Dayan has told the House Committee of Justice that he collected paper bags full of cash from alleged drug lord, Kerwin Espinosa, and handed them over to De Lima when she got back home from her job as Justice Secretary. Espinosa, who is also under investigation for illegal-drugs trading, confirmed in his testimony that some PHP8 million worth of payments – four of them in 2014 (one in 2015, though that one’s disputed by Dayan) – were made by him to De Lima via the senator’s former lover.

We won’t go into the testimonies here – there’s been plenty of coverage of those elsewhere – other than to say that with them this drama looks like its moving quickly towards the final act. That said, off from the main stage, De Lima continues her own sideshow routines like a street busker outside a theatre trying to gather an audience. Her repertoire has changed though – from the champion of all human dignity, to the strident defender of justice, to the defiant rebel, to the persecuted victim of a tyrant, to the abused woman, to the misunderstood woman, to the frail woman.

But along the way her audience – her fan base, too – has dwindled. Virtually isolated within her own Liberal Party, she has also alienated the country’s largest women’s organisation, Gabriela, for playing the woman-card and for casting herself in the same light as victims of rape and domestic abuse. Sympathy for De Lima as she continues to tour her one-woman show is becoming as elusive as a bat in a lunar eclipse.

She still has her friends in the media, of course – and why not; she’s good copy. But De Lima, if a case is brought against her, will be tried in a judicial court. Media absolution will count for nothing. She will be given the opportunity to have her say in that court – though in line with the court’s rules; not her own. She will be found guilty or acquitted on the strength of the evidence – and not on for the thespian appeal of her dramatis personae.

Moving forward – and we’re not being presumptuous here – if she’s found guilty then she must spend many years in jail; but not in some Four Season’s-style prison suite. If she doesn’t, or worse, if she’s offered some kind of clemency arrangement, then the Philippines will deserve its Banana Republic image where rule of law is little more than a mirage; an illusion – actually, a farce.

The De Lima saga aside, this administration is well aware that it needs to tackle the deep-rooted problems within the Philippine judiciary. Like other branches of government and government institutions it has to be cleansed; to become beyond reproach and to regain the trust of the citizens.

The hard facts on the ground are these: the people are tired of being duped; of seeing one rule for the rich and powerful, and one for the poor and powerless. They’re tired of the double standards that allow big crooks to get away with it while lesser criminals are prosecuted to the full extent of the law. They’re tired of the long drawn out and costly litigation that not only prevents justice from manifestly being seen to be done but in some cases prevents it being done at all. They’re tired of the revolving door at the Court of Appeals, the docket shuffling, the bribery and the corruption. For most Filipinos justice as provided by the state is little more than a national joke.

The Philippines judiciary is not short of scandals – the selling of Temporary Restraining Orders by Justices of the Court of Appeals, the taking of bribes, and misconduct and dishonesty from both sides of the bench.

None of this befits a democracy pledged to serve all of its people equally. President Rodrigo Duterte knows this and the cleansing is on his to-do list. But like so much of the ills that strangle progress in the Philippines, malfeasance within the judicial branch of government and across the legal profession is deep rooted and insidious. It will be another tough fight – but another one that has to be won.

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