Column: Saguisag’s projectile dysfunction

As I explained in the preceding post, there are two versions of this column, published September 18, 2007; a key conclusion is phrased one way in the printed newspaper and another in The main reason for the attempt to rephrase the conclusion: I remembered Opinion Editor Jorge Aruta’s observation about the limits of satire or outright sarcasm in journalism, Philippine-style. I did not want to be misunderstood, so I tried to make the change.

China’s donation of some $2 million in “non-lethal” military equipment to the Philippines last week does not only build confidence, in the words of Defense Secretary Gilbert Teodoro, between the two countries. It also raises eyebrows.

The donation, if I read the reports correctly, brings the total amount of Chinese military aid to about $4.5 million since 2004, the year the countries signed their first agreement specifying “China’s Provision of Military Aid Gratis to the Philippines.” (A second one was signed in October 2006.) Aside from showing an increase in the number of personnel exchanges, the bilateral relationship may now be ready to move to the next stage in defense cooperation: The Philippines is seriously considering buying eight “utility helicopters” from China.

Does the country have much of a China card? Andrew Yang of Taiwan’s Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies, a recognized expert on China’s People’s Liberation Army, doesn’t think so. “There’s not much evidence in that regard,” Yang said on a visit to Manila late last month. “I think it’s too early to say that the Philippine government is using China to balance US influence.”

It may be, however, that he bases his admittedly off-the-cuff answers on a key assumption more important to Taiwan than to the Philippines. “US commitment to maintaining its security umbrella [in the region] is still there,” he said.

* * *

It was, like a scuffle in a classroom, over almost as soon as it started. But those who caught the one and only skirmish between opposing counsel during the abbreviated promulgation of the decisions in the Joseph Estrada trial last Wednesday must have felt that, like in many a classroom, the class smart aleck managed to put one over the earnest plodder.

After Special Prosecutor Dennis Villa-Ignacio stood up and wondered about the defense counsel being apparently “at a loss,” the anti-graft court Sandiganbayan’s justices cut him short — but not before the quick-witted ex-senator Rene Saguisag cut him, period. “Till the very end we have to put up with snide remarks. There shouldn’t be a sore winner,” said Saguisag.

And yet “snide” perfectly describes Saguisag’s own uncalled-for remark. Sore winner, indeed.

* * *

Saguisag’s role as a human rights lawyer during the darkest days of martial law cannot be gainsaid. His wit, his undoubted courage, his grasp of the situation (at a time that word of mouth and mimeographed samizdat were often the only sources of reliable, not necessarily accurate information) helped awaken an entire generation.

He tirelessly visited schools. I remember one visit, in particular, when he spoke at my school, in the old audio-visual room at the back of the auditorium. It was just him and maybe 10 students at the most. He did not complain; indeed, he explained national issues with his usual panache and answered our questions with unusual patience.

When he ran for senator in 1987, using a truly innovative “adopt-a-senator” campaign, I was one of the millions of eager voters who “adopted” him.

* * *

It pains me, therefore, to see him conduct himself, in his premature old age, like a cantankerous blowhard claiming monopoly of the truth.

I remember an old Inquirer editorial which took Saguisag to task for breathtaking bad faith, after he described the Supreme Court’s decision to invite “amici curiae” [“friends of the court,” or resource experts] to the hearing on Fernando Poe Jr.’s citizenship case as “suggesting prejudgment.”

What did Saguisag say, exactly? “In the old days,” he had written in his newspaper column, “the Court’s members were seen as the best and the brightest. No ‘amici’ would be named for years.”

Unbelievable bad faith. “Instead of welcoming the participation of eminent lawyers, Saguisag belittles the Court that was wise enough to invite them in the first place,” the editorial read. “But Saguisag’s evident contempt for mere mortals who were too weak to resist an appointment to the Supreme Court (unlike, say, himself) prevents him from seeing the obvious. The use of friends of the court is not a fig leaf to cover judicial nakedness. Rather, it is a tree wide enough to give shade to the anxious.”

But these days, spreading anxiety about the administration of justice and the rule of law itself seems to be, entirely, Saguisag’s legal philosophy.

After he heard the news about last Friday’s reunion of public and private prosecutors involved in the Estrada trial, he launched a weakly lit but mean-spirited projectile in their direction. “That’s premature ejaculation,” he thundered.

Bad faith again. Why begrudge hardworking lawyers the chance to savor a historic legal victory? Because, unlike someone we know, they are insincere of conviction and impure of heart. [Print version]

[Online version: Because their joy is an impertinence in Saguisag’s new age of anxiety.]

* * *

Last June, in a conversation with Inquirer editors and reporters, Chief Justice Reynato Puno fielded a question about the possible legal consequences of an Estrada acquittal. Wouldn’t acquitting ex-President Joseph Estrada of the crime of plunder contradict the landmark Estrada v. Arroyo ruling (of which he was, coincidentally, the “ponente,” or decision writer)? Estrada v. Arroyo started, famously, by noting that “the jugular issue involves the relationship between the ruler and the ruled in a democracy, Philippine style.”

No, Puno answered directly, in a pastor’s modest but forthright tone: “We decided a constitutional issue [then]. This plunder case is a criminal case. So it all depends on the evidence.”

He did not speak about the possible political consequences of an acquittal; in contrast, all the idle talk from politicians on both sides of the Edsa People Power II divide, about a “win-win” arrangement in the historic plunder trial, proved to be just that: idle, speculative, politically motivated — and untethered to the facts of the case.


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