Manila (Philippine Daily Inquirer/ANN) - Former Philippine president and now Pampanga Representative Gloria Arroyo may still get a reprieve if the Supreme Court declares as unconstitutional the joint Commission on Elections and the Department of Justice (Comelec-DOJ) panel that recommended her prosecution for alleged electoral fraud, officials said.
Comelec Commissioner Rene Sarmiento expressed fears that the high tribunal might short-circuit the current administration's move, regarded as unprecedented in the annals of Philippine jurisprudence, to arrest Arroyo for allegedly sabotaging the 2007 balloting and thus prevent her from leaving for medical treatment abroad. The Palace has said the trip was a cover to seek asylum and escape prosecution.
Sarmiento told reporters on Friday about the possibility Arroyo would be freed should the high tribunal rule in favor of the petitions questioning the constitutionality of the panel.
"If the Supreme Court would say it is illegal or unconstitutional, that might be the effect...it might nullify [her arrest]," said Sarmiento, who was among five of the seven members of the Comelec en banc who voted for the filing of electoral sabotage against Arroyo on Friday.
Supreme Court spokesperson Midas Marquez told the Philippine Daily Inquirer on Sunday that the petitions filed by Arroyo's husband, Jose Miguel "Mike" Arroyo, and former Comelec Chairman Benjamin Abalos remained pending.
"If the panel is adjudged as unconstitutional, then of course all the proceedings conducted by that panel would have to be nullified," Marquez said. "But again, we have to wait for the decision of the court. I don't want to preempt what the court will do next."
Arroyo, 64, who is suffering a rare bone ailment, is now under "hospital arrest" at St. Luke's Medical Center in Taguig City, after Pasay City Regional Trial Court (RTC) Judge Jesus Mupas found probable cause to warrant trial of the nonbailable criminal charge penalised with life imprisonment.
The Comelec-DOJ panel early on Friday approved the resolution charging Arroyo, three days after Justice Secretary Leila de Lima ignored a temporary restraining order (TRO) issued by the Supreme Court on her directive barring Arroyo from leaving the country for medical treatment.
Legal eagles say the TRO is an "extraordinary measure" to prevent irreparable harm against individuals brought by "awesome" state powers.
Aquino Express victim
Two election commissioners did not take part in the decision, claiming that they did not receive a copy of the joint Comelec-DOJ resolution.
Hours later, the document, along with voluminous attachments, was sent to the Pasay City RTC and the case was raffled off.
Mupas, who had previously been reprimanded for sitting on his cases, swiftly fired off the arrest warrant, also within hours, having found probable cause in the charge against Arroyo.
The Arroyo camp denounced the swift manner in which the case was "railroaded," claiming that the former President had just become a victim of the "P-Noy Express". (P-Noy is President Benigno Aquino III's popular moniker.)
While raising the possibility of a negative court decision, Sarmiento expressed confidence about the legality of the panel, which he said was based on Republic Act No. 9369 which allowed Comelec to partner with executive agencies for investigative purposes. "So we can say that we acted with legal suppor," he said.
But should the high court decide against the panel, Sarmiento said the Comelec's recourse was to conduct and resolve the investigation on its own without the justice department.
"But we won't go back to square one because there are already affidavits submitted," he said.
Lawyers for Arroyo and Abalos have pointed out that the Comelec is mandated under the Constitution to act as an independent body and in partnering with the justice department of the executive branch the joint panel had become nothing more than a "kangaroo court".
They pointed out that the panel was specifically created to prosecute the former President, just like the ill-fated Philippine Truth Commission, which the high tribunal had declared as unconstitutional for being a violation of the due process clause enshrined in the Bill of Rights.
They also said that Comelec Chairman Sixto Brillantes and De Lima were opposition lawyers during the elections.
De Lima has said that the joint panel was created "so that we'll have a smooth process since both Comelec and DOJ have concurrent jurisdiction on election offenses".
President Aquino has said he wants Arroyo in jail before Christmas to fulfill a campaign promise to prosecute the former President for alleged corruption and electoral sabotage.
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