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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.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Jitters in Congress over Ombudsman’s order to dismiss Sen. Joel Villanueva on PDAF misuse, President’s threat to suspend writ of habeas corpus and possible revamp of Senate leadership over Marcos burial issue. Presidential legal adviser Sal Panelo says martial law by President Digong "unlikely" despite his threat to suspend writ. Peks man ha, Sal?




Senator Joel Villanueva


Everyone in Congress, especially in the Senate, seems jittery and agitated over recent developments affecting not just that institution but national stability. To wit:

There's the recent order of Ombudsman Conchita Morales seeking dismissal from the Senate of Sen. Joel Villanueva, over alleged misuse of his PDAF as well as falsification of public documents in 2008, when he was still a member of the House of Representatives representing the party-list CIBAC. Morales ordered Villanueva to face trial before the graft court, but Rep. Harry Roque has come to the defense of the former TESDA Chief, asserting that only the Senate could discipline its member. Predictably, some senators quickly circled wagons around him, scrutinizing the Ombudsman Act for a provision that would prevent any move against one of their own.

Recall that former Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile and Senators Jinggoy Estrada and Bong Revilla were imprisoned for the same accusation. But it seems that the Senate would want to truly protect its own this time, and the Ombudsman's letter was quickly consigned to the rules committee chaired by Sen. Tito Sotto, where possibly it could just lie there and die there, as the song goes. Given the widespread misuse of the PDAF and DAP in both chambers of Congress in the P-Noy regime, it's easy to predict that senators would seek to thwart Morales' order.  

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Then there is the impending burial of the late President Ferdinand Marcos in the Libingan ng Mga Bayani, following a most disconcerting 9-5-1decision by the Supreme Court upholding President Duterte's order. There is a sense of urgency about this move, as the Marcos tomb is already constructed though still boarded up all around with green GI sheets in the site reserved for former presidents in the LNMB. Recall that Mr. Duterte's campaign promise to the Marcos family was to give the late martial rule president "proper burial” in the national pantheon of heroes. 

His order, however, has re-opened deep fission over this issue and protests are bound to escalate as burial date nears.  Anti-Marcos solons like Rep. Edcel Lagman, whose brother was a torture victim/desaparecido in the martial law years,  have filed a motion for reconsideration with the SC and it should only be fitting and proper that the administration respect that MR before implementing the SC decision in LNMB. Sen. Risa Hontiveros has campaigned  for a “sense of the Senate” resolution against the burial, but she managed to get only 11 votes so far.

Certain to be caught right in the vise of the Marcos issue is Senate President Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel III, as his father, former Senate President Nene Pimentel, was jailed by FM and became a leading light in the anti-Marcos movement. Koko has openly criticized the LNMB burial but it is easy to see that should Mr. Duterte push this issue to its fruition, Koko, who cannot move from his position vs. FM's burial, could find himself under threat of being unseated.

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President Duterte

Then there's jitters over the recent pronouncement of Mr. Duterte that if lawlessness in Mindanao and efforts of drug lords allegedly to fund anti-administration activities are not curtailed, he would suspend the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus as provided in the 1987 Constitution. To be sure, the 1987 Constitution, a.k.a. the "Cory Constitution," reflected the trauma of martial rule and has loaded safeguards vs. abuse of the privilege of the writ;  but everyone in Congress as well as citizens engaged in a Duterte-watch are nervous just the same.

This is because, as Northern Samar Rep. Raul Daza, one of the leaders of the anti-Marcos movement in the US in the martial law years, recalls,  the proclamation of martial law by Marcos on September 21, 1972 was preceded a few months by suspension of the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus. The writ enables relatives of an arrested person to ask a court to present him or her bodily before it, to disprove that said person has become a desaparecido.

Will Mr. Duterte indeed suspend the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus, and on what grounds? If he would, would he then be on the way to proclaiming martial law as he has threatened in media? On what grounds would such proclamation stand? These are some of the questions on many minds nowadays---especially in both chambers of Congress.

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The 1987 Constitution has striven to ensure that enough protection of public welfare is imposed against suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, as provided in Article VII, “The Executive Department.” Thus, Sec. 18 provides that “in case of invasion or rebellion, when the public safety requires it,” the President, as Commander-in-Chief, “may for a period not exceeding 60 days, suspend the writ or place the Philippines or any part thereof under martial law.”

Within 48 hours from such proclamation or suspension of the writ, however, the Constitution requires the President "to submit a report in person or in writing to Congress,” and the latter, by a vote of at least a majority of all its members in regular or special session, “may revoke such proclamation or suspension, and this shall not be set aside by the President.” Moreover, upon initiative of the President, Congress “may extend such proclamation or suspension for a period to be determined by the Congress, if the invasion or rebellion shall persist and public safety requires it.”

But who may "qualify" for the suspension of the privilege of the writ? The 1987 Constitution defines it: only persons "JURIDICALLY CHARGED FOR REBELLION OR OFFENSES INHERENT IN OR DIRECTLY CONNECTED WITH INVASION."  

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Not content with these safeguards, the Constitution framers also insisted that Congress, if not in session, shall within 24 hours of such proclamation or suspension, CONVENE WITHOUT NEED OF A CALL. Moreover, within 20 days Congress can meet in joint session and VOTE WHETHER TO REVOKE OR SUSTAIN the presidential suspension of the writ---in effect, this is Congress' VETO POWER over the President's move, as Rep. Raul Daza stressed to this blogger. Daza also pointed out that THE 1935 CONSTITUTION DID NOT HAVE THIS SIGNIFICANT ROLE ASSIGNED TO CONGRESS BY THE 1987 CONSTITUTION.  

Moreover, under the 1987 Charter, the Supreme Court may review a request filed by any citizen on “the sufficiency of the factual basis of the proclamation of martial law or the suspension of the privilege of the writ or the extension thereof, and (it) must promulgate its decision within 30 days from its filing.” The Charter also declared that "a state of martial law does not suspend the operation of the Constitution" and that during the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus any person arrested or detained shall be judicially charged within three days, otherwise he shall be released.

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Given all the above protection imposed by the 1987 Constitution, the logical and persistent questions are, are there grounds to suspend the writ of habeas corpus and impose martial law, or do the conditions exist only in the mind of President Duterte and his advisers? Presidential Legal Adviser Sal Panelo opines there are enough grounds to consider the suspension of the writ---given that many thousands of Filipinos are still involved in the drug problem and that “the country’s slow judicial system” is a weak countervailing force in what may be “an eternity” to solve such problems. Panelo, however, was recently quoted by Daily Tribune as asserting that Mr. Duterte was "unlikely to declare martial law." 

Peks man ha, Sal Panelo. 

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Sen. Panfilo Lacson, chair of the Senate committee on public order and dangerous drugs, shoots down the eagerness of Mr. Duterte’s advisers to even hint of suspension of the writ and a hovering martial law declaration. Ping offers the following reasons: l). there has been no lawlessness in Mindanao since the Davao bombings, 2). the PNP claims that index crimes have dropped by more than 40% and 3). so many drug dealers have already surrendered in the administration's unrelenting war vs. illegal drugs.   

Ironically, Ping Lacson, once perceived as the berdugo of the PNP, is evolving now as more of a libertarian than his Senate colleagues. 

Some observers suspect that Mr. Duterte’s resurrection of the twin ghosts---suspension of the writ and proclamation of martial law--- arises from prospects of widespread unrest anticipated in connection with the planned burial of Marcos in LNMB.  

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