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The triumph of Juan Ponce Enrile

The lawyers arrived at half past 6 on a Thursday evening. They handed 14 packets of a hundred thousand each to the cashier of the People’s Court, an amount whose total is roughly a million more than the estimated annual salary of the government employee whose job it was to feed the cash into a counting machine.

The receipt changed hands. The paperwork was signed. And so it was that the most fragile man of the many men held in detention by Camp Crame walked out with a smile on his face. His hair was dark and neat. The buttoned white shirt was pristine. The signature yellow glasses flashed from the glare of portable led lights.

He waved to the media, shrugging off the aide attempting to support him by the elbow. The scrum of reporters circled him with microphones and recorders.

He smiled. Nodded. Cocked his head at the questions. He was at ease, an avuncular uncle amused by the palpitating press, his year in a government hospital having done little to damp the reflexes of a career politician.

“Today I’ve been released out of custody,” he said. “I would like to state for the record that my faith in the probity and justness of our judiciary has been vindicated.”  

It is a faith well established, not so much in the probity and justice of the judiciary, but in that judiciary’s faith in one Juan Ponce Enrile.   

All but one 

All persons are bailable, says the Constitution, except those charged with offenses punishable by life imprisonment, when the evidence of guilt is strong.

If the High Court has proven anything, it is this – that “all persons” means all people, unless that person is Juan Ponce Enrile.

Enrile is charged with a P172.8-million plunder case, one allegedly acquired through a scheme whose reported details include cash handoffs managed by his rumored paramour, and kickbacks skimmed off non-existent projects run by non-existent foundations. As plunder is a capital offense punishable by life imprisonment, granting Enrile bail requires that he appear and rebut the prosecution's evidence during bail hearings.

But instead of going through bail hearings, Enrile went to the Supreme Court, demanded bail, immediately, today, on the basis of mitigating circumstances. His counsel argued that no judge would charge Enrile with life imprisonment because of his old age and voluntary surrender. They argued that the probable lesser punishment would place his crime in a different category. Bail, they said, is Enrile’s right. 

The Sandiganbayan denied his bail. They argued that bail hearings are mandatory for all people charged with capital offenses. They said that mitigating circumstances are only relevant in fixing penalties after conviction.

The frailest man in detention

When Enrile went to the Supreme Court, the high court agreed with the Sandiganbayan that bail hearings are mandatory for those charged with capital punishment.

Along with their agreement, a majority of the justices still decided to grant Enrile bail, using logic far more creative than the reasons offered by Enrile himself.

Enrile, said the 8 of the majority, does not need to go through a bail hearing. He does not need to rebut the evidence of the prosecution. He does not need to prove the evidence of his guilt is not strong.

Instead, they argued that Enrile deserved bail, because Enrile is a fragile man.

The judges quoted his doctor, who said Enrile is a candidate for stroke and at risk of cardiac arrest. They said Enrile’s continued treatment by government doctors in a government hospital – and not by “competent physicians in a hospital of his choice” – seriously imperiled his health and life. By denying bail to an infirm man, the High Court said the Sandiganbayan “gravely abused its discretion,” calling its decision “whimsical and capricious exercise of judgment.”

It was, they said, a matter of human rights. 

All this was in spite of the fact that Enrile was permitted to move from a detention center to a government hospital, and was allowed permission to transfer to hospitals with better facilities, should the need arise.

And because there was no bail hearing, no attempt to prove or disprove evidence of the prosecution, no cross-examination of medical experts, Juan Ponce Enrile walked out of detention, the first man charged with a capital offense to secure bail on the basis of an excuse letter from his doctor.

The return of the king

It is a truth universally acknowledged that an elderly man possessed of a dangerously failing health must be in want of good rest.

And so on the Monday morning after he was the subject of the High Court’s compassion, Minority Leader Juan Ponce Enrile strode into his offices at the Philippine Senate, and managed, in spite of his fragility, to discuss with reporters the harvest patterns of freshwater mullets, the electoral loyalties of the northern corridor, as well as his opinion on the multi-disciplinary intellectual leadership required of presidential candidates. He also found the energy to put himself on the interpellator list for the Senate’s review of the Bangsamoro Basic Law and prepare legislative strategy with the minority bloc, all while studying “Islamism and Jihadism” in his free time. 

It appears, due to no less than the behavior of Enrile himself, that the High Court’s decision constitutes what Justice Marvic Leonen of the Supreme Court’s minority called “the result of obvious political accommodation.” Certainly it is odd that a man of such grave infirmity – so grave that his distance from sophisticated medical equipment constitutes a humanitarian crisis – should be wandering about the halls of the Senate with nary an oxygen tank in sight. 

There is little in the decision that explains exactly who will someday merit the exception Enrile secured – although the elements of the case do allow for the possibility for a certain aging former president now living in a hospital suite.

The door the High Court opened can now reasonably allow an exit to every aging pedophile, plunderer, and mass murderer armed with a slip signed by his doctor. It can cover every man and woman who can claim any of a whole slew of diseases, dangerous or otherwise. It can imply that all arrests of individuals carrying a senior citizen’s card must be followed by their immediate release until conviction.

To carry the majority decision to its logical – and ridiculous – limit would mean every aging member of the fortunate elite can choose to murder and pillage and live their lives happily on bail, with the certain knowledge they will be dead long before the courts can manage to grind their way to a conviction. 

In his blistering dissent, Leonen said the decision “violates the clear and unambiguous text of the Constitution.” It would have been difficult to understand why the court of last resort decided to conduct legal gymnastics and risk precedence the Constitution attempts to prevent simply to please this one man, if not for a single sentence buried in the majority opinion.

The man with the power of life and death 

“With his solid reputation in both his public and private lives,” writes Justice Lucas P. Bersamin for the majority, “his long years of public service, and history’s judgment of him being at stake, he should be granted bail.”

Setting aside the fact that if Enrile were convicted, it would mean a good portion of “his long years of public service” was spent gleefully plundering the Filipino people, his contribution to society and alleged upstanding reputation should have little to do with whether he deserves more compassion from the courts than any other citizen. 

Justice Bersamin is correct to say legacy is at stake for Enrile. The former defense minister says he is afraid of only two things – God, and the judgment of history.

Most statesmen, those who see the arc of history bending slowly and inevitably toward justice, are compelled to fill their last days with good works; eager to leave behind legacies to trump what may or may not have been occasionally shadowy pasts.

Enrile, of course, is not most men.

“I have no regrets in my life,” he said in an interview with Esquire in 2012. “Everything I did was according to my own desire.” 

Enrile does not bow to the judgment of history. He rewrites it. It is that compulsion that drove the 753-page memoir he launched in an event whose guests included 3 Philippine presidents.

His memoir narrates the life of a boy born in a spit of sand north of the country, who fatherless and friendless, pulls himself up by his bootstraps, fights inside a brutal war, becomes the brightest of legal lights, remains devoted to his beautiful wife, becomes the powerful and trusted lieutenant of the president, then institutes the iron fist of martial law “for the sake of the country.” He then turns around to become the hero of the people, after realizing the evils wrought by the greedy tyrant and his diamond-shod queen.  

“I have no reason to apologize,” he said. “If they can present to me any evidence of any wrongdoing, I will then face the music, but so far, nobody has come by to charge me of anything. Why should I apologize for something that I know not all?”

The faith of the fallen

This is a man who claims to have done nothing in his life on impulse, and nothing, to his knowledge, that was wrong. Every decision he made, he made of his own volition.

“What I have written in the book is not a rationalization. It was a narration of facts. I did it like a lawyer, narrating case before a jury and that jury is the Filipino people.”

Although there are many who have called him liar and tyrant and thief – the activists who were tortured, the journalists who were on the beat, the relatives and friends of the young men and women killed in the rash of murders during the dictatorship – there are also those who continue to salute the architect of martial law. Certainly among them are the gentlemen of the Senate minority, who offered gleeful interviews celebrating the return of “the smartest of all of us. 

In explaining the need to tell his story, Enrile said he was afraid to be seen as Hitler, “or someone else other than myself.” He said many attempts have been made that have succeeded in conditioning the minds of Filipinos to believe lies against him – that he was “a person who would use power for himself,” one “who used the military and the Filipino people to save his own skin.” 

There appears to be little reason for Enrile to fear. The people may turn against him, the media may tear his story apart, his enemies may be legion, but he can rest easy knowing that the venerable patriots of the High Court remain faithful to the mythology of one Juan Ponce Enrile. – Rappler.com