Philippine Court Rules Anti-Corruption Panel Illegal

By CARLOS H. CONDE
The New York Times
Published: December 7, 2010

MANILA — The Philippine Supreme Court on Tuesday declared as unconstitutional President Benigno S. Aquino III’s creation of a commission to investigate corruption allegations against his predecessor.

In a 10-5 vote, the court ruled that the executive order that created the Philippine Truth Commission — Mr. Aquino’s first such order after taking office on June 30 — violated the Constitution’s equal protection clause because it singled out former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

Edwin Lacierda, Mr. Aquino’s spokesman, called the decision a setback to the government’s efforts to stop corruption. But, he said at a news briefing, “We will not be stymied by this decision. We will continue exploring our options with respect to accountability.”

A spokeswoman for Mrs. Arroyo said the former president had no comment on the ruling.

Carlos Medina, a member of the commission, told ABS-CBN television on Tuesday that commission members would continue to meet and study their options despite the court’s decision. He defended the creation of the commission, saying that it would not single out Mrs. Arroyo and that Mr. Aquino could always amend the executive order to empower the commission to investigate other individuals.

“We should be allowed to do our work, because nobody will really know how we will perform unless we actually do our work,” Mr. Medina said.

Allies of Mrs. Arroyo had challenged the commission’s creation before the Supreme Court, arguing that it duplicated the function of other bodies responsible for investigating official corruption, including the Office of the Ombudsman.

The creation of a Truth Commission was one of the campaign promises made by Mr. Aquino, the son of the late democracy icon Corazon Aquino. Headed by a former Supreme Court chief justice, Hilario Davide Jr., the commission had already convened but had not begun formal investigations into the allegations of corruption facing Mrs. Arroyo.

Among the allegations are that Mrs. Arroyo cheated in the 2004 election, that she and several officials close to her used public money to finance their campaigns in that election, and that Mrs. Arroyo’s husband and other officials received kickbacks from the Chinese telecommunications company ZTE in exchange for a $329 million contract to build a broadband network throughout the Philippines.

This is not the first time that Mr. Aquino’s efforts to hold Mrs. Arroyo accountable for alleged misdeeds while in office were stymied by the Supreme Court.

In September, the court prevented Mr. Aquino’s allies in Congress from impeaching the ombudsman, Merceditas Gutierrez, who was appointed by Mrs. Arroyo.

Many of Mrs. Arroyo’s political adversaries view Ms. Gutierrez as a stumbling block in their efforts to prosecute the former president.

In October, the Supreme Court also struck down Mr. Aquino’s second executive order, which had sought to revoke the “midnight appointments” made by Mrs. Arroyo, so called because they were made shortly before she left office. Such appointments are usually made by departing administrations as a way of repaying political debts.

Adding to Mr. Aquino’s troubles with the court, said Marites Danguilan-Vitug, an investigative journalist and author of “Shadow of Doubt: Probing the Supreme Court,” is the fact that all but one of the justices, including Chief Justice Renato Corona, had been appointed by Mrs. Arroyo.

“What we’re seeing here is a clash of co-equals. The Supreme Court, dominated by appointees of former President Arroyo, is proving to be an obstacle to President Aquino’s anti-corruption agenda,” Ms. Vitug said. “The challenge for Mr. Aquino is to push his anti-corruption program despite the court’s rulings.”

About Carlos H. Conde

Researcher at Human Rights Watch (@condeHRW @hrw_ph). Former journalist (NYT, IHT, among others).
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