[OPINION | NEWSPOINT] A sputtering conspiracy

Vergel O. Santos
[OPINION | NEWSPOINT] A sputtering conspiracy
Rodrigo Duterte is clearly losing it; Antonio Trillanes, on the other hand, is in the ascendant

With little outside help, the Duterte regime is coming undone. 

A mere third of the way through its term, it already looks close to being spent, which should be no surprise, given the intense and sustained heavy-handedness with which it has wielded power. It does not help either that its leader is not in the pink of health.

What’s left of that power is now brought to bear on Senator Antonio Trillanes IV, the regime’s most scathing critic. But either that power is fizzling out or its target is proving no easy one. 

Before turning on him, the regime has been successful, beginning with its war on illegal drugs. By the official count, more than 20,000 addicts, runners, and dealers, and possibly collateral victims, were dead after 14 months, for a brutal rate of kills suggesting an efficiency achievable only by extrajudicial means.

Even as that war raged on, another war was launched, in Marawi City, Lanao del Sur, against a combined band of brigands, separatists, and terrorist suspects. When victory was declared, 5 months later, the battle site, a good part of the center of a once bustling town, lay uninhabitable, bombed to rubble from the air. Ten months since, no serious effort at rehabilitation has been started.

Amid his wars, President Duterte did not neglect personal targets. First on the list was Senator Leila de Lima, who, as chairperson of the Commission on Human Rights, had hounded him for death squad murders in Davao City when he was mayor there. A confessed assassin for Duterte revealed an attempt on De Lima’s life when she was in Davao for her inquiry. Duterte, President now, finally got her on drug-dealing charges that, despite heavy traces of concoction, were admitted in court. She has been in police detention for nearly two years now, denied the right to bail, her trial being dragged out.

Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno was targeted next, for stopping the President meddling in the affairs of the judiciary. Dominated by justices who had consistently favored the side with which Duterte aligned himself, Sereno’s own Supreme Court ousted her on a legal pretext called quo warranto. It declared her not qualified, ab initio, for the job – a job she had by then kept, unquestioned, for 5 years.

Quo warranto (implicitly) and ab initio (expressly) are the same exotic phrases dropped on Trillanes. Quo warranto relates to conditions whose nonfulfillment makes the bestowal predicated on them void, ab initio – void, that is, “from the start,” from the moment of bestowal. 

But, in Sereno’s case, the requirement that went supposedly unmet had in fact already been waived. And the Supreme Court, by taking jurisdiction over the case, usurped the exclusive role of Congress to deal with impeachable officials, like Sereno. Not to mention, 5 justices who were themselves among her accusers committed an ethical transgression by rejecting calls for self-recusal and proceeding to sit in judgment of her.

Trillanes’ case is equally, if not more, ludicrous. That he was granted amnesty, along with comrades he had led in rising up, in 2003, against President Gloria Arroyo, is not in question. But did he confess to the crime imputed to him? The confession is demanded in the application form for amnesty, in fact demanded too explicitly to be overlooked if skipped. But did Trillanes even actually apply?

These questions trigger memories that, although indirectly relevant to the issue, broaden the perspective on it. Trillanes mutinied against Arroyo to protest a creeping corruption he felt had reached the military. But like any protest against Arroyo, the mutiny was bound to hit a nerve of supreme national shame.

We forgave Arroyo for, confessedly, rigging her own vote, allowed her to serve out her presidential term, and afterward sustained her in power. She’s now Speaker of the House and a close Duterte prompter. Doubtless, with Trillanes’ troubles, she feels avenged – and with De Lima’s own troubles as well: it was by De Lima’s order as secretary of justice that Arroyo was stopped at the airport set to flee from the plunder case brought against her by the succeeding presidency of Benigno Aquino III.

In an atypically concessionary ruling, the Supreme Court has declared that Trillanes cannot be arrested without a warrant, thereby setting the President straight. The Court didn’t say it so plainly, but the point was unmistakable.

In any case, with Trillanes, by then already resigned from the military and an elected senator (serving from jail, as does De Lima herself now), the implication is that Aquino gave him his amnesty summarily, without bothering with due process. Thus, the amnesty is invalid, barked Solicitor General Jose Calida, the same dog loosed by Duterte on De Lima and Sereno. 

Calida insisted he had found nothing in the public files to prove that the amnesty was in order. And it was on the basis of this non-finding that Duterte appropriated two functions from the courts in one single proclamation: he pronounced the amnesty void and ordered Trillanes’s arrest.

But the finger-pointing  has stopped at Calida as in fact the last person seen holding the evidence he himself would declare nonexistent. No matter. Enough evidence, in documents, video records, and various testimonies, decisively disproves Duterte’s allegation.

Also, the military has dropped the idea – the, after all, crazy idea – of preparing a court martial for Trillanes, who would have to time-travel light years back to his days as a soldier to face the music by military justice as a mutineer. Calida’s own solicitors, for their part (and “for shame,” I’m told by one of them) decided to not ride along with their boss on his bizarre adventure in jurisprudence.

And, finally, in an atypically concessionary ruling, the Supreme Court has declared that Trillanes cannot be arrested without a warrant, thereby setting the President straight. The Court didn’t say it so plainly, but the point was unmistakable.

Anyhow, Trillanes retains his liberty under somewhat easier conditions, although, as his fellow amnestied mutineer Ashley Acedillo says, it’s always wise “to err on the side of caution.” Acedillo surely does not lose sight of Duterte’s and Calida’s problems with Trillanes – problems grave enough for them to wish him shut in and shut up, if not shot.

Trillanes has both of them marked for grave wrongdoing – Duterte, for P2 billion of possibly ill-gotten wealth stashed in secret accounts that he refuses to open for scrutiny in spite of findings by the Office of the Ombudsman reinforcing Trillanes’ accusation; Calida, for more than P300 million coming to his family’s private-security agency under government contracts.

Trillanes is in fact up against a gang of conspirators who have wronged this nation so grievously they will do anything to escape accountability. Actually, some of them, like Arroyo and the heirs of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos, have already managed it, employing the only trick known to work: self-perpetuation in power.

But how much of such enabling power are Duterte and his gang left with? The steady decline of public trust in him is definitely not a hopeful sign, and the rising prices of basic commodities should help the trend.  

The phenomenon is too sensible to be lost even on one so clueless as Duterte. Indeed, he has been showing signs of panic, which – like the dark shadow of disease discoloring his face – he is unable to disguise with bravado. He could only resort, for instance, to the most impotent of legal ammunition: libel, through a suit brought against Trillanes by a son and a son-in-law in behalf of their own slanderous-mouthed patriarch, and “inciting to sedition,” a historically unprovable crime, through charges brought by an undersecretary (of labor?) known to insinuate himself everywhere yet get nowhere.

But the starkest sign of panic comes from Duterte’s own mouth – demeaning words intended for the armed forces. He reminds them of his beneficence, of their doubled salaries in particular. Thus, he comes across not as President or Commander in Chief, but as a patron or bribe giver who has come to collect. 

Rodrigo Duterte is clearly losing it; Antonio Trillanes, on the other hand, is in the ascendant. – Rappler.com

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