Crime and punishment

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan - The Philippine Star

There’s one aspect of K-drama that makes them so enjoyable: even the rich and powerful are held accountable for wrongdoing and punished.

It’s escapist entertainment for people like us living in a society where the arm of the law is appallingly short, and where wealth and power protect all sorts of crooks.

South Korea has had its share of corruption and other scandals, plus dictators and other gross human rights violators. But the Koreans have sent so many of their former presidents to prison for various offenses, as well as top executives of chaebols or family-owned business conglomerates including their children.

Among the most memorable cases of Korean crime and punishment was “nutgate.”

The vice president of Korean Air (and daughter of the airline’s chairman and CEO), Heather Cho, a.k.a. Cho Hyun-ah, assaulted a flight attendant and the cabin crew chief on a Seoul-bound Korean Air flight before takeoff at JFK International Airport in New York on Dec. 5, 2014.

Cho’s beef: the macadamia nuts were served to her in the original closed plastic packaging instead of on a plate in first class. She reportedly ordered the flight attendant to kneel down, then fired the cabin crew chief and ordered him off the plane, which required making the plane taxi back to the airport gate, delaying the flight by 20 minutes.

A South Korean court found Cho guilty of obstructing aviation safety and sentenced her to 12 months in prison, although she was freed after just five months. The flight attendant and cabin crew chief were returned to their posts in April 2016, and received financial compensation.

Macadamia nut sales reportedly surged in Korea amid the scandal.

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The nut rage woman comes to mind following the conviction of Hunter Biden, son of US President Joe Biden, on three counts of fraud for lying about his crack cocaine abuse so he could buy a gun. The offense carries the penalty of imprisonment, but the US legal system can allow him to be spared from this.

I can’t imagine the son or any other close family member of a sitting Philippine president being convicted (although criminal charges have been filed once the president is out of power). Neither can I imagine accusations of substance abuse against the relative of a sitting president (or the president himself) being publicly verified, and accepted as a health and social problem.

In our case, President Marcos’ flamboyant mother Imeldific, convicted of seven counts of graft, is out on bail and is again holding her birthday parties at Malacañang. It’s doubtful that she will ever go to prison.

For the first time, the US has also convicted a former president of a criminal offense. Again, the question is what penalty will be imposed on Republican candidate Donald Trump, and whether he can serve as president in case he beats Joe Biden in their return bout in November.

This one we’ve done in the Philippines, although we’re better at detaining former presidents during trial instead of sending them to a regular prison upon conviction.

Joseph Estrada, whose presidency was aborted by EDSA II, did not spend a single day in prison following his conviction for plunder in September 2007. He was sentenced to life in prison, perpetually disqualified from public office and his ill-gotten wealth subjected to forfeiture. But his successor and EDSA Dos beneficiary Gloria Macapagal Arroyo gave him a full pardon immediately after his conviction.

The pardon allowed Erap to make a successful bid for mayor of Manila even if everyone knew he lived in San Juan, and to keep his considerable assets. His two sons by two women are currently senators.

During his trial, Erap spent several years under house arrest in his farm with his expensive ducks. GMA herself would spend several years under “hospital arrest” after her nine-year presidency, while on trial for plunder.

GMA’s afflictions, which allowed her to spend detention without bail in a government hospital, miraculously vanished following her acquittal and release, and subsequent election to Congress.

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You can understand why Erap finds his plunder case a laughing matter, describing himself as an “ex-convict” who never finished anything – not college, and not his presidency.

Others, of course, see nothing funny about this failure to hold the powerful and wealthy to account. It has bred impunity. Seeing top officials getting away with large-scale corruption, the misuse of public funds, abuse of power and rent-seeking become institutionalized, all the way down to the smallest unit of government, the barangay.

Philippine authorities show a high tolerance for misbehavior involving prominent figures – not only government officials, but also entertainment personalities. We’ve seen this several times even in the enforcement of traffic rules, with senators and other VIPs being let off.

Korean officials have told me that in their society, the bar for good behavior is set higher for the privileged class. We have seen that they don’t hesitate to impose appropriate punishment for wrongdoing.

The opposite, unfortunately, is the situation in the Philippines.

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MEA CULPA: Larry Gadon is the presidential adviser for poverty alleviation, not poverty “allegation” as erroneously written in my previous column.

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