The Estrada enigma

Former president Joseph Ejercito Estrada won the mayoralty race in Manila. The Commission on Elections proclaimed him the winner, and his opponent, Alfredo Lim, publicly conceded his victory. In fact, he will take his oath and assume office this noon. However, a legal challenge earlier dismissed by the Comelec may have gained some traction due to a very recent en banc  jurisprudence, Comelec vs Jalosjos.

Brief background. Recall that on Sept. 12, 2007, the Sandiganbayan—after a sensational trial from 2001 to 2007—found him guilty of plunder and sentenced him “to suffer the penalty of reclusion perpetua  (roughly equivalent to life imprisonment) and the accessory penalties of civil interdiction during the period of sentence and perpetual absolute disqualification.”

Moreover, it forfeited in favor of the government (1) P545 million “with interest and income earned… deposited in the name and account of the Erap Muslim Youth Foundation,” (2) P189 million “inclusive of interest and income earned, deposited in the Jose Velarde account,” and (3) the so-called “Boracay Mansion” in Quezon City.

The verdict was handed down by a special division of the antigraft court composed of then Presiding Justice Teresita J. Leonardo de Castro (now a member of the Supreme Court), who wrote the 262-page decision, Justice Francisco H. Villaruz Jr. (later became presiding justice, now retired) and Justice Diosdado M. Peralta (now also a member of the Supreme Court).

Estrada denounced the Sandiganbayan as a “kangaroo court,” and his counsel, Rene A.V. Saguisag, blurted, “The special division was programmed to convict. We never had a chance.”

GMA’s pardon. Despite these criticisms and initial attempts to appeal his conviction to the Supreme Court, the former President ultimately accepted the decision and the penalties imposed on him when he scribbled his agreement to the executive clemency granted him on Oct. 25, 2007 by then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. On the next day, Oct. 26, he walked free after being detained for six and a half years.

For clarity’s sake, let me copy verbatim the pertinent portion of the “pardon” signed by President Arroyo and Acting Executive Secretary Ignacio R. Bunye:

“WHEREAS, Joseph Ejercito Estrada has publicly committed to no longer seek any elective position or office,

“IN VIEW THEREOF and pursuant to the authority conferred upon me by the Constitution, I hereby grant executive clemency to JOSEPH EJERCITO  ESTRADA, convicted by the Sandiganbayan of Plunder and imposed a penalty of Reclusion Perpetua. He is hereby restored to his civil and political rights.

“The forfeitures imposed by the Sandiganbayan remain in force and in full, including all writs and processes issued by the Sandiganbayan in pursuance hereof, except for the bank account(s) he owned before his tenure as President.”

In asking the Supreme Court to unseat him, petitioner Alicia Risos-Vidal, later joined by Lim two weeks ago, argued that by its clear wording, the presidential pardon was based on Estrada’s commitment “to no longer seek any elective position or office.” Hence, the pardon did not restore his right to run for any elective office.

Furthermore, the Sandiganbayan’s imposition of the accessory penalty of “perpetual absolute disqualification” from holding public office was not expressly erased by the pardon.

Favoring Estrada, on the other hand, is the emphatic provision of the presidential pardon restoring “his civil and political rights.” Certainly, the right to vote and to be voted is a political right. Moreover, by his election to office, the people are deemed to have pardoned him.

Warped enigma. Convoluting Estrada’s legal enigma is Jalosjos vs Comelec, which ruled that “the accessory penalty of disqualification remains even though one is pardoned as to the principal penalty unless the accessory penalty shall have been so expressly remitted in the pardon.”

(This decision, as of my deadline for this column, is not yet posted in the Supreme Court website. Neither could the Court’s spokesman, Prof. Theodore Te, give me a copy. I took the preceding quotes, as well as those below, from a June 19 Rappler report.)

The Supreme Court held “that the penalties of perpetual or temporary absolute disqualification carr(y) with (them) the deprivation of the right to vote in any election for any popular office or to be elected to such office.”

It further explained, “This is based on the presumption that one who is rendered infamous by conviction of a felony or other base offense indicative of moral turpitude, is unfit to hold public office, as the same partakes of the nature of a privilege which the State grants only to such classes of persons (who) are most likely to exercise it for the common good.”

The big question is whether the Court will apply this ruling to unseat Estrada, considering (1) that he was convicted of plunder while Romeo Jalosjos was found guilty of two counts of statutory rape (a capital offense for which he, like Estrada, was imposed  reclusion  perpetua) and six counts of acts of lasciviousness, (2) that he was granted executive clemency while Jalosjos was given only a presidential commutation (or reduction) of sentence, after serving six years of the original penalty, and (3) that he was voted to office while Jalosjos was not because his name was not printed on the ballot by the Comelec.

Will these distinctions make a difference? Abangan!

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