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Sotto: Enrile back to Senate on Monday after SC ruling

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – After the Supreme Court granted his bail petition, detained Senate Minority Leader Juan Ponce Enrile will be back to work on Monday, August 24, said his close ally Senator Vicente “Tito” Sotto III. 

Sotto said the Senate minority got the word from Enrile hours after the Court issued its ruling. Enrile relayed the news to Senator Gregorio Honasan II, his protégé and former bodyguard. 

“He will be attending [Senate session] on Monday. We are very happy,” Sotto said in a text message. 

The Supreme Court has yet to issue the terms of its decision but some of Enrile's colleagues already believe he will be able to return to the Senate. 

Senators Francis Escudero and Juan Edgardo Angara, both lawyers, said that the 91-year-old lawmaker is allowed to get back to work. 

“He is free to return to the Senate,” Angara told Rappler. 

Escudero agreed: “I congratulate him on his legal victory and look forward to working with him again in the Senate.” 

Senate President Frankin Drilon also said Enrile can return to the Senate if he is granted bail. 

"We respect the decision of the Supreme Court granting bail to Senator Juan Ponce Enrile. The Senate will always respect, follow and implement every decision of the courts. We will abide by the legal processes as we have always done in the past,” said the former justice secretary. 

The Supreme Court on Tuesday, August 18, announced that it granted Enrile's petition for bail, “subject to the terms and conditions to be specified by the Court in its Order which will be forthcoming.” The vote was 8-4. 

Enrile has been detained at the Philippine National Police General Hospital in Camp Crame, Quezon City, since his surrender in July 2014. The anti-graft court Sandiganbayan suspended him as senator for 90 days in September 2014.

The senator faces plunder and graft charges over the pork barrel corruption scam, where he is accused of funneling development funds for the poor to fake non-governmental organizations in exchange for multi-million-peso kickbacks. Detained opposition senators Jinggoy Estrada and Ramon “Bong” Revilla Jr are his co-accused. 

Last week, the Supreme Court also granted Enrile's request for a bill of particulars, which provides details of the plunder charges against him. 

Senate President Pro-Tempore Ralph Recto said that Enrile's colleagues will benefit from his nearly 5 decades of experience in government. 

“I am looking forward to working with the youngest member of the Senate,” Recto quipped. 

“With our agenda full, hard labor awaits him here. With his experience, he can certainly enrich the discussions on the budget and the BBL,” Recto said in reference to the Bangsamoro Basic Law which aims to create a more powerful autonomous region in Muslim Mindanao. 

Known as the architect of martial law, Enrile was defense minister, and finance undersecretary under the Marcos regime. At 91, he is the oldest politician to remain in government. 

He faced various controversies and corruption allegations but owes his longevity to his legal brilliance and alliance with incumbent presidents. 

Precedent-setting? 

Escudero said that the Supreme Court ruling on Enrile's case was a landmark one. 

“This is a seminal and precedent-setting decision on the right to bail given the unique theory used by Senator Enrile. Many other accused can benefit from this decision. It will have implications on the constitutional provision on the right of an accused to bail given the legal theory upon which JPE (Enrile) based his petition before the SC,” the senator said. 

In previous interviews, Escudero said that the legal theory of Enrile's lawyers was “interesting.” He said the counsels' view was that convicts of Enrile's age can only face penalties that are bailable. The argument goes that since the senator is not yet convicted, he should be able to benefit from this, and be allowed to post bail. 

“Actually, this is a new theory,” Escudero said in February. “It's good for the Supreme Court to tackle that. It will be trailblazing if ever, and if at all the Court decides one way or the other.”

Under Article 13 of the Revised Penal Code, one of the circumstances which may mitigate criminal liability is when “the offender is under 18 years of age or over 70 years.”

Based on witnesses' testimonies, Enrile was already 80 when the scam happened. 

Yet a veteran lawyer who previously spoke with Rappler on condition of anonymity said that Enrile could not cite old age to avoid spending time in jail while his case is still pending. (READ: 90-year-old Enrile may still spend time in jail)

“I have not encountered a case where old age was grounds for granting bail in a non-bailable offense. The only grounds for granting bail in a non-bailable offense is if the evidence of guilt is not strong,” the lawyer explained.

In their petition, Enrile's lawyers said that the court should consider his advanced age and voluntary surrender. They also argued that he is not a flight risk, and that the prosecution has not established strong evidence of guilt to deny him bail. 

It is unclear if Enrile's age was a significant factor in the Court's ruling, pending the release of the decision. 

A stronger minority? 

A staunch Enrile critic, Senator Antonio Trillanes IV had a short response to the development: “I respect the decision of the Supreme Court.” 

Trillanes though has said that Enrile would not be able to stand detention in an ordinary jail because of his age. The former navy officer was also detained for rebelling against the Arroyo administration. 

Enrile's allies welcomed his possible Senate comeback. 

Sotto said, “It is about time.”

In March, Sotto wrote the Sandiganbayan asking the court to show “judicial compassion” by granting Enrile house arrest as he was then suffering from pneumonia and coughed blood. Fifteen senators including Drilon signed Sotto's letter. 

Another member of the Senate minority, Senator JV Ejercito, said that Enrile's return will strengthen the opposition. 

After the detention of the 3 senators, only 4 Senate minority members remained: Sotto, Ejercito, Honasan, and Senator Nancy Binay. 

“The minority will be reinforced because for the past year, we have not really been functioning as a minority so hopefully with his addition, we will be able to scrutinize the bills, especially the budget, better,” Ejercito told Rappler. 

“Especially with the caliber of JPE missing, that was a big loss. He will now be a big boost to the minority.”

Senator Binay shared the sentiment: "I look forward to working with him in the minority as our most senior member, particularly in scrutinizing the 2016 budget and fiscalizing the administration." – Rappler.com