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Political Tidbits is the prestigious column of Belinda Olivares-Cunanan that ran for 25 continuous years in the op-ed page of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the newspaper that she helped put up with its multi-awarded founder, the legendary Eugenia Duran-Apostol, in December 1985, just two months before the EDSA Revolution.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Sandiganbayan’s resolution of GMA’s twin petitions for bail will be keenly watched, as citizens of various political persuasions weigh in for the ex-president on humanitarian/Christian considerations---invoking the “mitigating and extenuating circumstances” of her life-threatening illness and advance age.



Former President Macapagal-Arroyo soon after her spine surgery in 2011


The Sandiganbayan is expected to resolve within the next weeks what may be termed a motion for reconsideration of former President Macapagal Arroyo’s petition for bail, based on her lawyers’ contention of the lack of evidence in the PCSO case against her, as well as her supplemental petition based on humanitarian ground---that she is very seriously ill and her poor medical condition justifies bail.

I wholeheartedly support especially this latter petition and so do many citizens of various political persuasions as well as those who are thoroughly apolitical. A lot of support from a humanitarian---and Christian--- consideration for a bail for her also comes from the religious sector.

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The former President was detained on Dec. 9, 2011 at the Veterans Memorial Medical Center, after three major cervical spine surgeries at St. Luke’s Medical Center which did not improve her condition. Discharged in July 2012, she was readmitted to VMMC in October 2012 and has been in continuous detention there since then.

Many citizens, including some of her most vociferous critics during her nine-year administration and politicians of various political parties and persuasions, have been adding their voices to GMA’s petitions for bail. Their more compelling argument is the serious deterioration of her physical health, as evidenced by her emaciated looks and severe loss of weight, aggravated by advancing age. In April this year GMA will be 67 years.

In many societies, especially in Christian settings such as our country claims to be in, these twin factors would merit serious positive consideration and concern. I hope more Christian leaders would add their voices to those who have already spoken on her behalf, such as retired Archbishop Oscar Cruz and Brother Eddie Villanueva of Jesus is Lord Movement.

Hopefully the assembly of bishops nationwide in the CBCP, which meets in plenary this week, would plead for her bail too. It will be recalled that some of them were quite active in obtaining full pardon from GMA for a convicted former President Estrada in 2004, on less compelling humanitarian ground.

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Among those who weighed in recently on her behalf was no less than a spine surgeon in VMMC’s Department of Orthopedics, Dr. Antonio B. Sison, MD., and one has to admire him for his forthrightness and courage in so doing.  He spelled out in a Nov. 14, 2013 medical certificate his diagnosis of GMA’s present condition:  “Cervical Spondylotic Radiculopathy, Degenerative Lumbar Spine Disease and Post Cervical Spine Decompression with Instrumentation.” He asserted that a repeat MRI study showed a “multi-level lumbar spine stenosis with nerve root compression while a bone densitometry test showed evidence of osteoporosis.” 

Dr. Sison argued that these findings “correlate with her symptoms of continued cervical and lumbar pain with further deterioration of her poor physical health.” But more importantly, the spine surgeon stressed that “these irreversible and progressive developments may cause serious impairment of her health and danger to her life, unless attended to promptly.”

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The medical viewpoint ordinary citizens can sympathize with in former President Arroyo’s case, and the humanitarian argument is being invoked for the grant of her petition for bail by the Sandiganbayan, so that she could seek the necessary relief for her condition.  I wish to stress that I am one of those who fully support her plea for bail on purely humanitarian and Christian grounds---she is very ill and advancing in age.

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That having been said, however, I also fully realize that justice must be rendered to the country and the Filipino people, which means hearing out her corruption case in the proper court.

This is, of course, the bone of contention between her defense lawyers and the prosecution: whether the only case pending against her (three other cases in  past months have been dismissed for lack of evidence)---plunder in the PCSO case, a non-bailable crime---holds ground.  This argument rightly has to be fought over in court and GMA deserves a speedy trial as every Filipino does.

Her lawyers have been pressing for the trial to commence but there appears to be some foot-dragging in the court---in contrast to the whirlwind two hours with which she was hied to the Pasay RTC on the charge of electoral sabotage three years ago.

In the meantime that trial is being held, GMA deserves bail on humanitarian ground of her serious illness which could be life-threatening and her need for expert medical attention.

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GMA’s lawyers, who cite that her three co-respondents in the PCSO case have already been granted bail, argue that there is no legal basis for charging the former president for this supposed crime as her “participation” was limited only to approving the confidential intelligence funds of the PCSO as required of her office under LOI No. 1282---indicated by her marginal “OK” notation on the request document. Her lawyers assert that she was not involved in subsequent actions taken by the PCSO board and management to confirm and release those funds.

Interestingly, the Ombudsman’s office had admitted that Arroyo’s act of approval was “not irregular per se” and that any evidence of “conspiracy” in this case was not direct, but only “implicit.”

Interestingly, too, in at least two or three earlier rulings it will be noted that investigators at the Ombudsman’s Office found probable cause to charge GMA at most only with graft and technical malversation, NOT plunder. But it will also be recalled that Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales, whose appointment President Aquino personally announced at his first SONA in 2010, overruled her investigators and upgraded the charges to non-bailable plunder, as splashed in media on Aug. 1, 2012.

GMA’s lawyers note that the only prosecution witness presented in that PCSO case, then newly-appointed director Aleta Tolentino, on cross-examination of evidence of Arroyo’s guilt apart from the marginal “OK,” was forced to admit that “That is all we have, Sir.”

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It also adds up to look at the pattern of the split vote in the Sandiganbayan on GMA’s earlier petition for bail. Three justices, namely Rafael Lagos, an Aquino appointee; Elfren de la Cruz, reputed to be a contender at that time for presiding justice, and Amparo Cabotaje Tang, the most junior of the justices, who eventually got to be appointed by President Noynoy as presiding justice, voted against a GMA bail, vs. two who voted affirmative. Presiding Justice Cabotaje-Tang’s appointment kicked up quite a controversy in the court system.

It should also be recalled that while GMA was speedily hied to court in 2011 for the charge of electoral sabotage, which is also non-bailable, she was eventually granted bail on that score. But her lawyers allege that so insistent was the Ombudsman on keeping GMA behind bars that she was charged with plunder in the PCSO case even before the preliminary investigation was completed.

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Lawyers on both sides of the PCSO case will expectedly battle on legal merits, and well they should; to many concerned citizens, however,what matters most in our Christian setting and humane delivery of justice is not only the “degree of participation” of the accused in a given accusation, but also the “mitigating and extenuating circumstances” in the imposition of a punishment such as denial of bail.

Outraged citizens argue that there could be no more extenuating circumstance than GMA’s serious medical condition which, as Dr. Antonio Sison stressed in his medical certificate, “may cause serious impairment to her health and danger to her life, unless attended to promptly.”

Sadly, however, instead of responding to her medical plight and alleviating it---as Sen. Miriam Santiago queried, what possible political harm could this 80 lbs. woman still do at this stage to the current administration?---it has cracked the whip even harder on the ailing ex-President. The administration has restricted her visitation rights, reduced her sunning hours much-needed for bone recovery and even barred her from attending daily mass at the hospital chapel. 

GMA’s situation is such that all decent people should speak out for her and let the world know what’s happening to her---on behalf of all that’s decent, humane and Christian in our society.




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