Delayed justice

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan - The Philippine Star

Physicians generally get a lot of respect in this country, especially when they also prove to be capable public servants. The late Juan Flavier, with his keen sense of humor, is sorely missed.

So people are expressing dismay that two top doctors at the Department of Health – Secretary Enrique Ona and dancing Assistant Secretary Eric Tayag – are under investigation for suspected anomalies in vaccine procurement.

It’s nice for the administration to show that in graft probes, no one is untouchable along the straight path or tuwid na daan. But there’s also hissing from the Palace snake pit that Ona is just the latest casualty in the fratricidal wars in this administration, with feuding between two pharmaceutical giants tossed in.

Ona and Tayag will get their chance to explain their side. But in a society that prefers to believe the worst of everyone, the two men will likely be deemed guilty until they can prove otherwise – which can be long after June 2016, by which time their careers would be over.

Pinoys like jumping to conclusions because it takes forever to resolve court cases in this country. By the time a case hurdles the judicial gauntlet and a final ruling is handed down, the story would have been forgotten – and sometimes the public still won’t be sure if truth has been established.

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Consider the Maguindanao massacre, whose fifth anniversary will be marked this Nov. 23.

In a year, the total number of hours spent on hearing the case might not even reach 24.

A typical court session in this country lasts less than an hour. Lawyers, who are usually paid per appearance, will find an excuse to seek a postponement. The judge, still with a mountain of other cases to attend to, will grant the postponement, and proceedings will resume after a month.

After an interminable trial in a lower court, the case may go to the Court of Appeals for an equally protracted hearing, and may be elevated to the Supreme Court (SC) for yet another long wait.

For a while people were spooked by the prospect of perpetual litigation after several cases in which the SC reversed its own rulings that were supposed to be final and for execution. But recent reports said the SC is moving to address the problem.

Even the usual route to a final SC ruling, however, is still tortuous. By the time innocence is established with finality, the life of the wrongly accused would have been ruined.

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Compare this with the process in South Korea, where the captain of the ferry that sank only last April, leaving more than 300 dead, was sentenced yesterday to 36 years in prison for homicide. The captain, who is in his late 60s, had earlier apologized to the public for abandoning the ferry. He accepted the verdict, which cleared him of murder and spared him from the death penalty.

The sinking, which in this country would be considered an accident with no one held accountable, led to the dissolution of Korea’s coast guard for failure to rescue the passengers, most of them students. The billionaire chairman of the shipping company was also found dead in a remote area a few months after he went missing following the tragedy. No foul play has been established.

Will a seven-month wait for justice always be nothing but a dream in the Philippines? Even 19 months will be good enough – that’s the period that South Africans had to wait for justice to be rendered when “Blade Runner” Oscar Pistorius killed his girlfriend.

The snail-paced administration of justice is the root of many evils in our country. The failure to render justice means people get away with crime. This breeds impunity, whether in the murder of political opponents and journalists, or in plunder.

Why does corruption persist, with scandals implicating even officials and allies of daang matuwid and threatening to decimate the membership of both chambers of Congress?

Because, starting with the Marcos clan, everyone gets away with corruption in this country, and are even richly rewarded with more opportunities for plunder, by election to high office.

An expat whose government is one of the biggest sources of foreign aid in the Philippines sighed to me that there are simply too many opportunities for corruption in government. The expat indicated that administration allies have not resisted the temptation.

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We have a toxic soup of snail-paced justice that is often as transactional as politics, mixed with weak law enforcement and ineffectual regulatory bodies.

This sorry state has fueled insurgencies, encouraged ruinous coup attempts, and led to what has to be the highest murder-homicide rate in this part of the world.

It also encourages election cheating. By the time a poll protest hurdles the electoral tribunals and appeals in regular courts, the term would have been almost fully served by the poll cheat. Poll fraud pays.

Slow litigation and a graft-prone judiciary are also consistently listed among the top disincentives to foreign direct investment.

Knowing that the court of public opinion is a million times faster in rendering judgment than regular courts, politicians find the use of slander and black propaganda against their enemies immensely useful.

With regular courts unable to render a quick verdict on guilt or innocence, people inevitably form their own opinions, which are almost always influenced by personal biases and may not be based on law.

With such biases, plus people’s belief that magistrates vulnerable to corruption cannot be trusted to render fair judgment, it’s not surprising that officials accused several times and even convicted of large-scale corruption are still elected to public office.

Ona and Tayag need not despair; even while their investigation crawls along, they might have a future in politics.

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