MANILA, Philippines - Malacanang yesterday assured the people of continuing judicial reforms amid outcries over the perceived special treatment being given to Senators Ramon Revilla Jr. and Jinggoy Estrada following their arrest on charges of plunder and graft.
“We acknowledge that we continue to deal with a criminal justice system that needs to be overhauled and reformed in order to be truly fair and equitable,” Presidential Communications Operations Office Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr. said.
“We are determined to pursue these reforms and with the support of a vigilant and enlightened citizenry, we may be able to achieve significant gains. We join our people in hoping that the Sandiganbayan will conduct a fair and speedy trial that will ensure the triumph of truth and justice,” Coloma said.
The Philippine National Police (PNP) said the special detention facilities were for high-profile detainees.
Bayan Muna party-list Rep. Carlos Zarate and human rights lawyer Edre Olalia earlier criticized the planned detention of the senators in special cells at the PNP headquarters at Camp Crame in Quezon City.
Revilla was arrested on Friday and Estrada on Monday and both were detained at the PNP Custodial Center in Camp Crame. Both lawmakers face graft and plunder charges before the Sandiganbayan for alleged involvement in the pork barrel fund scam.
Zarate and Olalia, on the other hand, said they would oppose a bill at the House of Representatives proposing to establish separate detention centers for high profile personalities.
Zarate said the issue was propriety on where the accused would be detained.
“While the other detainees are cramped in small jails, you have here separate detention cells for the VIPs. What message is the government trying to send the public – that if you want VIP treatment in jail, you commit bigger crimes?” he asked.
“It once again shamelessly demonstrates that if you are a suspected big-time crook or influential politician belonging to the hoity-toity, you don’t run the risk of getting mixed up with the shirtless hoi polloi and endure what they are made to suffer,” he said.
Olalia, secretary-general of the National Union of People’s Lawyers, said the special treatment could violate the equal protection clause in the Constitution and constitute double standard.
He said the proposal to establish separate detention cells for high profile personalities would run counter to the UN Standard Minimum Rules on the Treatment of Prisoners in 1955.
“We look forward to the day when the courts and this government would routinely send, as a matter of course, all accused, including the rich and famous, to regular jails just like everybody else. Then we can say that justice is blind without fear or favor to whom the sword falls,” he said.
The PNP earlier said that a four-room bungalow at Camp Crame that it presented as detention facility for the senators was originally built as a barracks for officials of the Custodial Service Unit.
However, in a last-minute change, the PNP said it would allow the rooms to be occupied by the high-profile detainees.
Dasmariñas City Rep. Elpidio Barzaga described the bill seeking to establish high-profile detention centers in the country filed by Ako Bicol party-list representatives Rodel Batocabe and Christopher Kho as “discriminatory.”
Barzaga said the proposal would violate the equal protection clause in the 1987 Constitution.
Barzaga insisted the measure would only send a wrong signal to the public that there was nothing wrong if a public official engaged in criminal acts because they would be separated from common criminals.
“However you look at it, the public will think that we are exercising double standard in our justice system,” Barzaga said.
Ilocos Norte Rep. Rodolfo Fariñas, vice chairman of the House committee on Justice, said the measure could not be considered as a general policy to imprison persons committing high profile crimes in a special detention center.
“It is open to abuse. The law is created not for a particular individual or group of individuals who committed serious crimes but it was designed for all and equal, whoever you are and whatever is your stand in the society,” Fariñas said.
John Silva, civic leader and executive director of the Ortigas Foundation Library, also wrote an open letter to President Aquino pointing out that Revilla has a cell that is 10 times bigger than the one given to Aquino’s father, the martyred former senator Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr., when he was jailed by then President Ferdinand Marcos.
“Your dad didn’t go to jail for stealing. He was into more heady stuff like a return to democracy, human rights and moral convictions. So why the hell are you treating these senators with kid gloves, these guys who can’t seem to recall, account or sign off on billions of missing pesos?” Silva asked the President in a letter that went viral on the Internet.
Giving the senators privileges defeated the purpose of detaining them in the first place, he said.– With Evelyn Macairan