30 June 2011

Way out of line

She was a burst of fresh air in the otherwise dank environment of the Gloria government. From practically out of nowhere, Leila De Lima became Chair of the Commission on Human Rights as the Gloria Arroyo administration wound up its affairs. And De Lima proved many doubters, myself included, wrong when she led by example and inspiration, worked long hours, talked a great game (which she then showed by taking on all comers, including Roddy Duterte in Davao City on the Davao death squads), displayed her independence from the appointing authority and, in the process, and raised the profile of the CHR to much greater heights.

Her appointment as Justice Secretary of the then new-Aquino administration was the one that was almost unanimously and loudly applauded as the one thing that the President had gotten right. And she did not disappoint. She took on the burden of leading the investigation of why things went south during the bus-hostage crisis and showed her mettle by submitting a report which she knew would rankle the President as it recommended sanctions for a close friend and a close political ally of the President. When publicly rebuffed by her boss, she thought about quitting but chose to stay, again a move that was welcomed and applauded.

I count myself as among those who hold her in high regard, which is why this is not easy to write.

The Secretary of Justice recently held a press conference and, flanked by the NBI Director and the Head of the CIDG, announced the results of a six-month reinvestigation ordered by the President after the Supreme Court acquitted Hubert Webb et al. of the horrific crimes committed against Lauro Vizconde’s family members. In that press conference, the Secretary of Justice announced that the NBI and the police had unearthed new witnesses, whose identities were withheld, who could “shatter” the alibi of Hubert Webb (that he was in the United States at the time of the crime). Included in the “new evidence” was the magnetic reel tape that showed that there was no Hubert Webb who left the country, even as the NBI admits that a Hubert Webb (presumably the same one) had re-entered the country in 1992.

As the press conference unfolded, the question in my mind was “why?”

Why was the Secretary of Justice going all out to “shatter” the alibi of a man who had been acquitted by the Supreme Court in a press conference?

Why had the six-month reinvestigation apparently centered only on the same person again, despite his acquittal?

Why had the Secretary of Justice not advised, or even instructed, the NBI to no longer look into Webb et al. because they were no longer legitimate targets of any criminal investigation for the same offense as they were now protected by the guarantee against double jeopardy?

Why was the Secretary of Justice announcing publicly what appeared to be inconclusive details and circumstances from witnesses who were, just now, being presented?

When the Secretary of Justice allows a reinvestigation of a group of persons who are, for all intents and purposes, innocent for having been acquitted, with the full knowledge that such a reinvestigation would not lead to the filing of cases anyway, the benefit of the doubt may perhaps be allowed due to misguided zeal or even misplaced sympathy. But when the Secretary publicly announces inconclusive results with full knowledge of the injury and prejudice it will cause to the acquitted Webb (and the false hopes it will raise on the part of the bereaved Vizconde), such an act can only be described as irresponsible and perhaps even malicious.

The Secretary was expected to know fully well that the matter of Webb’s alibi was no longer an open issue as the Supreme Court had already decided on it; that she persisted on publicly “shattering” the alibi is incomprehensible. She was expected to know that double jeopardy meant also that Webb et al. could no longer be legitimate targets of any criminal investigation.

Ironically and regrettably, the Secretary, as former Chair of the CHR, was expected to be fully aware that publicly announcing the inconclusive results in a press con without Webb being able to confront the witnesses was a gross violation of his fundamental right to due process as well as his right to be informed that he was still a suspect.

That the Secretary focused on “shattering” the alibi of Webb clearly betrayed the nature of the reinvestigation. It was, for all intents and purposes, a unilateral preliminary investigation where Webb was, once again, a suspect. That is the only way to understand the pronouncement of the Secretary of Justice; any other interpretation, no matter how charitable, makes no sense.

A unilateral preliminary investigation of Webb is unprecedented as it is not allowed under the Constitution and the Rules of Court. Webb, having been acquitted, is no longer susceptible to criminal charges for the same offense under the guarantee against double jeopardy, and that immunizes him even from a “re-investigation” where he would again be considered the primary suspect. Further, the unilateral preliminary investigation used witnesses, never presented during the trial of this case, testifying on a 20-year old event without benefit of cross examination or even confrontation. What is worse is that the Secretary obviously believed the witnesses, as may be seen from her declaration that the alibi has been “shattered” even as she herself admits that the testimonies are “inconclusive” because they do not place Webb at the scene of the crime.

Expectedly, the Webb family is up in arms even as Mr. Vizconde is understandably hopeful. This, to me, is the real reason why the Secretary’s pronouncements were just so wrong.

The young Webb is entitled to pick up his life and try to regain some sense of normalcy after his acquittal. No matter what one may think of the Supreme Court decision acquitting him, he does not deserve to be “tarred and feathered” by innuendoes coming from no less than the Secretary of Justice on nationwide television and radio. The acquittal restores him to full civil rights, including the right to dignity and to be left alone. The Secretary’s pronouncement breached those rights most grievously.

The elderly Mang Lauro is entitled to hope that one day justice will be done. That those who hurt, abused and killed his wife and two daughters will one day face trial with the spectre of conviction founded on competent, admissible, credible and strong evidence. He does not deserve false hopes and unfounded promises of closure which is what the “inconclusive” results of the six-month investigation unduly disclosed during the press conference created.

The least that the young Webb and the elderly Mang Lauro deserve is a clear answer from the Secretary to the question that I was asking myself on Tuesday and perhaps they themselves were asking also- why?

08 March 2011

Eating Lunch Alone

Reflections on what qualities, not just qualifications, a good and effective Ombudsman should have; in Newsbreak, here.

Speaking Pro Hac Vice

Reflections on stare decisis and authoritativeness of decisions in the Newsbreak page, here.