MANILA, Philippines - Justice Secretary Leila de Lima confirmed yesterday receiving information on an alleged plan of former President and now Pampanga Rep. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to seek political asylum abroad to evade prosecution over a string of criminal cases including plunder and poll fraud.
In an ambush interview, De Lima said she has received a tip that one of the countries being considered by Arroyo is the Dominican Republic, where an investment of $10 million to $30 million can reportedly make one eligible for permanent resident status.
De Lima said she has information that Arroyo is also eyeing other countries as potential asylum destinations. She declined to name the countries pending verification, but The STAR sources identified these as Portugal and Spain.
“We are verifying the information. This is something we can’t ignore,” De Lima said.
The Philippine government has no extradition treaties with the three countries. De Lima said the Department of Justice (DOJ) is coordinating with the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) in verifying the information.
She said the reports have bolstered her suspicion of Arroyo’s real motive for leaving the country, and justified her rejection of the former president’s request to seek medical treatment abroad for her cervical spine.
“Any information we are getting, which is becoming the basis for our doubt on the true agenda for the travel, would be coursed through the DFA,” De Lima said. “Anything is possible. They can always do that (seek asylum). What if our suspicion turns out to be true, that this (medical issue) is just a spectacle really to have shield for their actual intention of evading these cases?”
In her travel requests, Arroyo revised the list of her destinations more than once raising doubts on her promise to return. Arroyo had mentioned the United States, Germany, Switzerland, Singapore, Spain, Italy and Austria in her requests to travel.
Meanwhile, the DOJ chief also voiced her support for President Aquino’s offer to the Arroyo camp to fly in foreign doctors to perform the required medical procedure on the ailing former president.
“If foreign specialists would come to check on a particular patient, consultation, I don’t think that is already practice of medicine. An isolated act of consultation or even of treatment, I would assume, that’s not yet practice of medicine. So you don’t need a license or permission.”
For presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda, the Arroyo camp’s rejection of Aquino’s offer “certainly strengthens the people’s perception on the real reason for the request to travel.”
“The President has stated the circumstances by which the request was denied. The travel authority granted by Congress mentioned six nations and then the travel authority request (relayed to the) Department of Justice mentioned three without ever mentioning the specialists, the doctors of her choice,” he said. “So this adds up to all these concerns of: is she going abroad to be treated? Or is there any other reason why she is going abroad? And for that reason, the President squarely addressed that issue of medical treatment by offering the doctors to fly over. And so, having rejected it, again, one wonders: what is their real reason for traveling abroad,” he said.
“If they say and as they have emphasized very strongly that it is a medical concern, then we have addressed that and having refused that, the issue is: what’s the real reason for traveling abroad?” Lacierda argued.
He also defended Aquino’s decision to have the government shoulder the medical expenses of Arroyo, if she is treated locally, saying it is in the nation’s interest to keep the former president in the country so she could answer the charges against her. He said the government may put up a special private fund to finance the treatment of Arroyo if the people would not allow public money to be used.
“We continue to hope for Mrs. Arroyo’s recovery, while also hoping for closure to the charges that have been brought against her,” he said.
Lacierda said the government’s main concern is to ensure that anyone facing criminal charges would be within the reach of the law.
“We have seen this in the case of Ramona Bautista — she’s abroad. If she’s here, it’s easy to acquire jurisdiction… (In the case of Arroyo) there’s an existing order against her. Why make life difficult for us to make sure that the administration of justice will proceed smoothly?” he said. He was referring to one of the suspects in the murder of Ramgen Revilla, son of former senator Ramon Revilla Sr. Ramona and the victim were siblings.
Lacierda also questioned the Arroyo camp’s insistence that the whole thing was a legal issue.
“That’s the issue here, they want to travel because they are looking for specialists. Okay, so what was our solution? Don’t travel anymore, we will help you. Just tell us who your specialists are and we will bring them here in the Philippines. Why are they rejecting it? We thought the reason to travel was to seek medical treatment. Isn’t it that we answered that squarely? That issue was answered squarely by the President: we will bring in the specialists of your choice. And so, it primarily addresses the issue of (seeking) medical treatment,” Lacierda said.
“Now, they’re changing the tune. They’re changing now and saying: wait, don’t we have the right to travel? Isn’t it that our right to travel was premised on the fact that you wanted to seek medical treatment? We’re providing that,” he said.
“There was, according to them, medical necessity that’s why they need to travel abroad. What the President is saying is that wait, if you really need help from a doctor abroad, we will shoulder the expenses,” Lacierda said.
Lacierda said Aquino simply wanted to be true to his promise that there would be accountability under his administration.
Asked what the government would do next if the SC issues a temporary restraining order on the travel restrictions on Arroyo, Lacierda said: “We will discuss that but, for now, maybe later on… We are confident; we’re going to defend our case before the Supreme Court. So we’re not issuing any telegraphic punches here,” he said.
Lacierda said it was also the President’s personal decision not let Arroyo travel abroad after weighing the legal, medical and political considerations.
“She has also stated many countries where she intends to go. Why is it? She has an ailment, but not as urgent as what the doctors said,” Vice President Jejomar Binay said for his part.
Lacierda said Arroyo’s excuse for wanting to travel abroad has become flimsier with the Philippine Medical Association’s offer of help.
“We will welcome any offer of the Philippine Medical Association to treat Rep. Arroyo. They claim and they feel very strongly that there are competent doctors to treat Representative Arroyo here in the Philippines and, certainly, if they issued such statement, certainly, we welcome that. But… it’s up to Representative Arroyo to accept the offer of PMA—it’s not up to us to say that,” Lacierda said.
“That’s the reason why we need the Arroyo camp to specify or identify the specialists and then we will discuss what the specialists need. But as far as I know, St. Luke’s has claimed that, has mentioned, has stated, rather, that they are competent to do bone biopsy here in the Philippines or any hospital,” he said.
Lacierda said Arroyo and her allies must act in good faith because the offer was made in good faith as well.
“We have a saying in law, the offer was made in uberrimae fidae—in utmost good faith. We would like to also see that the camp of Arroyos will take up the offer also in uberimmae fidae—in utmost good faith as well,” he said.
Meanwhile, Sen. Edgardo Angara said the likelihood of Arroyo not coming back if allowed to leave should not be used as justification to keep her from traveling.
“To deprive a citizen of his right or her right, you need a judicial determination. You need a court order to do that, not an administrative decree especially in this case, with due respect to the judgment of the justice secretary, there is no charge yet filed against the former president,” Angara said.
Besides, Angara said that finding a place to hide would be difficult if not impossible for the former president if ever she decides to evade prosecution.
“I think the presumed and the speculative speculation that she will escape, I think is not good enough reason to deny her access to medical attention,” he added.
Angara emphasized that the credibility of the former president should not be an issue in this particular case and that the value of life should be the main consideration.
He pointed out that the opinions being given by some medical practitioners about the condition of Arroyo and the type of treatment that she needs are conflicting and inconclusive.
The administration has cited observations made by members of the PMA that Arroyo’s condition does not necessitate immediate treatment and that there are physicians in the country who can perform the required procedures.
However, Angara said that based on his own discussions with his surgeon friends, the required treatment for Arroyo’s ailment requires “a special surgical knowledge which may not be really available in the Philippines.”
“They told me that kind of surgical operation is quite unique. It requires a specially trained and experienced surgeon to undertake it. Because if it’s so close to the spinal and to the nerves, it’s not just simply because you are a surgeon, that you’ll be very experienced to handle that surgical operation,” he said.
“Why are we holding people from traveling? Because we fear that they may not come back anymore and they might evade whatever legal and judicial processes that may be laid against them?
“But I think in this case of President Arroyo, the probability of her evading the legal processes of our country may be remote especially because in this time and era, there is practically no place to hide. Media will always find you. The arm of the law is longer now than before and you cannot hide anywhere you go,” he added.
Senate Majority Leader Vicente Sotto III also believes it’s unreasonable for the administration to ban Arroyo from traveling because no case has been filed against her in court.
“How can you make someone accountable for something you have not charged her with in court? Their arguments raised is a fallacy of non-sequitur, it does not follow, it lacks causal connection,” Sotto said.
“It’s obvious that she needs medical attention. Why deprive her of exercising one of her basic rights, to choose her own doctor and seek the best medical treatment including options available outside of the country. Every person has a right to health and medical care corresponding to his state of health, without any discrimination,” he added.
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