The historic impact of the Estrada conviction
AS I WRECK THIS CHAIR By William M. Esposo
The Philippine Star 2007-09-16
Barely 45 minutes after the guilty verdict on former president Joseph Estrada's plunder case was announced last Wednesday, I received requests for telephone interviews from Alan Tanjusay of the Mainichi Shimbum of Japan and Arnold Clavio (in tandem with Ali Sotto) of DZBB radio. Later that day, I was also interviewed by Kaye Dacer of DZMM, Joel Zobel of DZBB and Deo Macalma of DZRH.

They wanted my reactions and my forecast on the verdict’s political implications.

To all interviews, I stated that:

1. The court decision was a historic landmark, one of the best developments that happened in our country. The first-time ever conviction of a former president for plunder should send shivers down the spine of present as well as future public officials with similar intent.

2. It is doubtful that this conviction will result in public disturbance. The outpouring of sympathy for a former actor-turned-president is expected but this will not make people troop to the streets in protest, unlike that May 1, 2001 riot in Mendiola.

In February 25, 1986, we deposed a dictator, Ferdinand Marcos, but we never succeeded in making Marcos account for the alleged plunder during the 21 years he wielded power. But last Wednesday, a former president, Joseph Estrada, was found guilty of plunder and sentenced to reclusion perpetua.

Notwithstanding the length of the trial which lasted all of six years and despite all the political color that surrounded it, I am morally convinced that Joseph Estrada was meted his just dues. Just as the ANC legal panel of the Wednesday trial coverage pointed out – the Estrada defense underestimated the weight of the evidence heaped against the former president.

There were testimonies from persons who established Estrada's direct links to the charges against him on top of documentary evidence to support the testimonies. The Estrada defense team did little to debunk these.

Much of what the Estrada defense panel did throughout the trial were confined to acts that attempted to either destroy the credibility of the court or to put a political spin to the proceedings. At one point, there was even an attempt to declare the proceedings a mistrial after Estrada fired his defense lawyers. Little was done to discredit the evidence that was presented against the former president.

Even during the impeachment trial, this was the direction of the defense. Dodging the issues and playing to the masa gallery seemed to be the thrust of the Estrada defense team. The suppression of the Jose Velarde envelop was what triggered EDSA II.

The "vindication by the people" spiel (the Senate victories of Loi and Jinggoy Estrada vis-à-vis the Senate defeat of trial state witness Chavit Singson) of the Estrada camp of late is another attempt to shift from the legal parameters of the case and move this issue to a political forum where popularity becomes the basis of guilt or acquittal. The election of Loi and Jinggoy Estrada to the Senate and the defeat of Chavit Singson in the polls reflect personal political strengths of the candidates and not the veracity of the evidence ranged against Joseph Estrada.

The weight of Madame Gloria Macapagal Arroyo's lack of credibility and negative ratings have more to do with Singson’s defeat rather than the strength of his evidence against Estrada. Tito Sotto and Tessie Oreta who were both on Estrada's side during the impeachment trial also lost miserably during the May elections after siding with Madame Arroyo.

Estrada's minions may hem and haw as they please but I don't think there will be an uprising like what was staged in May 1, 2001 – the violent assault on Malacanang Palace. It is one thing for Estrada to get sympathy from his adoring masses and another for them to risk life and limb to protest and try to reverse his conviction.

If there will be another extra-constitutional upheaval in this country, it will be from overwhelming disgust for the crimes of the present regime of Madame Gloria Macapagal Arroyo against the Filipino people and not because of public sympathy for Estrada. Madame Arroyo will suffer the punitive backlash for what she has done and not for what Joseph Estrada was meted.

Joseph Estrada does not even embody national hope in the way Ninoy Aquino had symbolized the fight for the return of freedom and democracy.

Joseph Estrada is fully equipped with the wherewithal to make use of all the legal remedies available to him. It is not outside the realm of probability that the insecure Malacanang tenant will grant Estrada a pardon in order to diffuse the political tension. A bad ruler will easily empathize with another.

At this point, the nation will do well to move forward and focus hard on how to bring to justice the people whose brazen deeds and sloppy cover-ups clearly show plunder happening right under their noses. The Estrada verdict is a great victory for the Philippine justice system but the war against graft and corruption is far from won.

Social justice is a stranger to more than 40% of Filipinos. There are still plunderers amongst us. Jueteng, the great corruptor of public officials and police and military regional commanders, continues to thrive. Government contracts, as exemplified by the ZTE National Broadband Network deal, reek of tremendous overpricing.

This conviction of a former president for plunder is only the beachhead in the big fight of the Filipino people to attain clean, honest and transparent governance. The Estrada verdict is only a significant victory in the long struggle to enforce justice that applies to all, where no person is above the law.

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