SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan - The Philippine Star

In the light of recent developments, some interesting questions and proposals have cropped up.

Can the government function if about half of the senators and three-fourths of congressmen are arrested and held without bail for plunder?

A cynical, macabre reply is that the lawmakers should consider detention better than the extremist alternative, which is to drop a bomb on the two legislative chambers while in session. That’s fewer than 300 people eliminated from the country’s booming population, now hitting 100 million. Where’s Jemaah Islamiyah when it’s needed?

Seriously, not too long ago, the mass arrest of crooked lawmakers looked more like wishful thinking on the part of Juan and Juana de la Cruz. But with documents indicating misuse of public funds now being posted on the Internet by the Commission on Audit (COA) and the Department of Budget and Management (DBM), ignoring the paper trail can constitute dereliction of duty on the part of those tasked to prosecute corruption cases.

Embattled senators are fighting back where it hurts for the COA – by threatening a budget cut.

It’s notable that lawmakers in Indonesia also used the same weapon to stop that country’s special anti-corruption commission – a recipient of this year’s Ramon Magsaysay Awards – from pursuing its mandate. Indonesians showed their support for the commission by contributing money so it could continue with its work. The commission has put about 60 members of parliament behind bars in the past decade, as well as governors, mayors and magistrates.

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Indonesia’s impressive record raises another question: how quickly can the corruption cases move in the Philippines?

In case you haven’t noticed, our country is becoming a judicial basket case. The efficiency of the judicial system has nothing to do with resources or level of economic development. It’s a systemic malfunction that we can’t seem to fix.

Never mind Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and other advanced economies. Consider how quickly the wheels of justice turn in other developing countries. India convicted yesterday four men for the fatal gang-rape of a student in the capital Delhi last December. A fifth rapist was sentenced on Aug. 31, receiving a light penalty because he was 17 at the time of the crime.

Last January, another Indian judge in Punjab state convicted and sentenced to 10 years the rapist of a 17-year-old girl, just eight days after the case was filed in court.

In Brazil, three men who raped an American student in March were sentenced four months later to 49 years in prison.

China, still a developing country despite being the world’s second largest economy, can be brutally efficient in its administration of justice. A woman at the heart of the scandal over melamine-tainted milk was executed. Officials accused of corruption are removed from office, tried quickly and then, depending on the gravity of the offense, either executed or imposed stiff prison terms. One of China’s high-profile officials, Bo Xilai, is currently on trial together with his wife, and the couple’s conviction looks like a foregone conclusion.

We’ve abolished capital punishment. But one proposal now gaining traction is to pass a law that will permanently bar from public office – even with a presidential pardon – any government official convicted of plunder and other serious crimes as well as offenses carrying a certain minimum penalty.

For corrupt government officials, the best image makeover is election or appointment to public office after they have been convicted or while still on trial, which could take forever in this country. This reinforces the public perception that plunder pays and it’s really just a matter of “weather-weather.” In the case of China, it’s doubtful that Bo Xilai, once convicted, can be able to reinvent himself in governance.

OK, China has a different political system, which democracy-loving Pinoys don’t want. But we go back to Indonesia, a democracy where political patronage thrived – until the Corruption Eradication Commission was set up. Can we follow in the Indonesians’ footsteps?

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Another proposal is to strengthen forfeiture laws so that relatives of those convicted of plunder and other offenses related to betrayal of public trust cannot enjoy the proceeds of crime.

We have such laws in place, but they look more like best-efforts pledges.

An example is the plea deal approved for former military comptroller Carlos Garcia. He’s ready to rot in prison for the rest of his life as long as his family gets to keep P150 million or about half of his assets that are considered ill-gotten. How is this justice?

This raises another question, again in the light of what the Indonesians have achieved: will we ever see judges and justices sent to prison for corruption? Who can be trusted to handle any plunder complaint filed by the Office of the Ombudsman against powerful, wealthy politicians?

International surveys on investors and expats doing business in Asia have included observations that the Philippine judiciary is corrupt and notoriously inefficient. This is one of the biggest disincentives to foreign direct investment.

This is the judiciary that will handle the cases to be filed against those implicated in the pork barrel scandal. Is the judiciary up to the task?

A financial expert has an offbeat suggestion to catch or at least scare magistrates, lawmakers and other public servants vulnerable to corruption: decriminalize bribing, but keep it a crime to accept a bribe. Mistrust is then automatically built into the system, with the public servant never sure if he is being set up for a criminal indictment by the briber.

All these proposals are being kicked around these days. Considering the gravity of the problem, the nation may have to implement drastic solutions. The pill will be bitter, for certain sectors especially, but as the saying goes, what doesn’t kill us should make us strong.











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