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SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - November 14, 2018 - 12:00am

Imelda Marcos isn’t going to prison. Ever.

Sure, the former first lady now has “convict” appended to her name. Do we address her as the “honorable convicted member of the House of Representatives (a.k.a. the HOR)”?

But Marcos was convicted of simple graft rather than the serious offense of plunder. Even if there are seven counts, a conviction for graft usually allows the convict to remain free until the court ruling is affirmed with finality by the Supreme Court.

During the promulgation last Friday, the Sandiganbayan’s Fifth Division ordered the forfeiture of Marcos’ bail, which she posted in 1991 when the cases were filed, due to her “unjustified absence” at the hearing along with her lawyer. The court ordered her arrest, but gave her one month to appeal the forfeiture of her bail.

Last night, as the formal order was issued by the court, there was confusion on whether she can remain free while the appeal is pending or whether she must be arrested pronto.

If Marcos is allowed to remain free until the final resolution of her case, at 89, she could be 99 – or even 109 (and she will still be around to celebrate her birthday, you better believe it) – by the time final judgment is rendered, considering the glacial pace of our criminal justice system.

Marcos’ conviction for simple graft – and consequently her continuing freedom from arrest – should reinforce the practice of thieves in government to chop up contracts into several parts involving amounts below P50 million – the threshold for a plunder indictment.

This should worry President Duterte, who says he is putting the campaign against corruption right up there with his war on drugs as priorities of his administration (except there is no Double Barrel in the war on graft).

*      *      *

Still, after 32 years, the conviction for the first time of any member of dictator Ferdinand Marcos’ family is good news especially for the victims of his regime.

People are hoping that the ruling of the Sandiganbayan’s Fifth Division would set a precedent for a similar resolution of the many other corruption cases filed against the Marcoses and perhaps even some of their cronies.

At the very least, the conviction should put an end to active efforts to rewrite history and erase the atrocities committed during the Marcos dictatorship.

The conviction may also facilitate continuing efforts of the government to recover the assets with mind-boggling value that the Marcoses are accused of amassing: bank deposits, jewelry befitting royalty, prime real estate, paintings that only Bill Gates and the world’s top museums can afford.

Optimists are hoping that the conviction will even be a game changer in the dramatic political revival of the Marcos clan.

So there is jubilation over the conviction of one half of the conjugal dictatorship, even if the other half is resting in peace, as he reportedly requested, in the heroes’ cemetery.

*      *      *

Still, punishment matters – and it looks like Imelda Marcos is going to escape it. Her continuing freedom from punishment can only inspire other government officials to commit the same offenses. Duterte can kiss his anti-corruption campaign goodbye; the laughter is already deafening in the Bureau of Customs.

While her conviction is on appeal, Congresswoman Imeldific is expected to win reelection in her late husband’s bailiwick of Ilocos Norte, retaining all the privileges and perks, bankrolled by Filipino taxpayers, enjoyed by a member of Congress.

If she is ever ordered arrested and denied bail, all she has to do is bring out the heavy artillery – a wheelchair and perhaps a neck brace – start wheezing and swooning, and voila, she will get five-star hospital detention, until the arrest order is quashed or she is granted bail on humanitarian grounds, due to her advanced age.

If she is convicted with finality in a couple of years, which court would have the heart to order her committed to the New Bilibid Prison, and which president would not have the heart to grant her clemency?

There ought to be a law stating that anyone healthy enough, no matter how advanced the age, to occupy public office should be healthy enough to be detained in a regular jail if he or she betrays public trust.

The common perception is that we can never expect such legislation from our politicians, who have powerful self-preservation instincts. But not all politicians are ruled purely by self-interest. Maybe lawmakers will surprise us with legislation that will stop the use of frail health and advanced age as the refuge of scoundrels.

*      *      *

The conviction is just one step, though significant, in a tortuous process of bringing to justice those responsible for the abuses of the Marcos dictatorship. We all know this; Imelda Marcos knows it.

Heck, with the formidable Lolong Lazaro as her lawyer, Imeldific might even be cleared with finality by the Supreme Court of all seven counts, on some bizarre technicality.

That will send a powerful message that crime pays, and corruption pays fabulously. It will reinforce the long-held perception that if you’re going to steal in this country, you better steal big, because then you can get away with everything.

Imeldific will be flashing her magnificent jewelry collection and singing “New York, New York” all the way to her grave. Don’t cry for her, Philippines.

If I am proven wrong, I will gladly say mea culpa.

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