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News in focus / MARCH

Sereno’s march to impeachment, DOJ surprises, and other fantastic gambits

by Psyche Roxas-Mendoza

The Ides of March, in the time of Roman Emperor Julius Caesar, meant danger about to come. And it did come, in the whole month of March, for Supreme Court Chief Justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno.

The first day of March had the Chief Justice in banner headlines on whether she was taking a “wellness leave” (as announced by her lawyers) or an “indefinite leave.”

The SC’s 13 Justices came out with a statement: the Court En Banc “arrived at a consensus that the Chief Justice should take an indefinite leave” starting March 1. Senior Associate Justice Antonio T. Carpio was named acting Chief Justice.

On March 5, Solicitor General Jose Calida filed a quo warranto case against Sereno, which questioned her eligibility for the post before her appointment as Chief Justice.

SC Chief Justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno       AP Photo/Aaron Favila

According to Calida, Sereno failed to file her Statement of Assets, Liabilities, and Net Worth (SALNs) for 10 years before she applied for the Chief Justice post in 2012. 

The SC en banc then ordered Sereno to comment on the quo warranto petition filed against her by the Office of the Solicitor General (OSG).

Three days later, on March 8, the House of Representatives Justice Committee found probable cause to impeach Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, voting 38-2, with zero abstentions.

The impeachment complaint covered alleged violations and offenses committed by Sereno after she became Chief Justice.

A day later, on March 9, the Manila Standard reported that former Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile, who served as the presiding judge in the impeachment trial of the late Chief Justice Renato Corona, will join the House prosecution panel should Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno go on trial before the Senate.

One of the grounds for Corona’s impeachment was his failure to disclose to the public his SALN, as required under the Constitution.

To all these developments, Chief Justice Sereno’s response was “I will not resign,” coupled with a number of speaking engagements where she repeatedly stressed that efforts to unseat her threatened the independence of the judiciary.

CLOSURE UNDERWAY

The first day of March was also a day of woe for hotels, resorts, and all kinds of business establishments operating in Boracay, acknowledged as one of the top tourist destinations in the world.

Perennially cited in travel magazines for its beautiful beaches, Boracay generated nearly P50 billion in annual receipts, according to the Tourism Department. It had more than two million tourists in 2017 alone.

After being declared a cesspool by Pres. Rodrigo Duterte in February, the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) announced it planned to close the island for six months, placing it under a state of calamity to speed up the rehabilitation and cleaning of the island.

Politicians like Senator Cynthia Villar, as well as Boracay’s business community appealed to the government not to close the island.

On March 23, three agencies—the Department of Tourism (DOT), the Department of Environment and Natural Respurces (DENR) and the DILG recommended the closure of Boracay for six months, starting on April 26.

The recommendation was made official some two days after the Philippine Daily Inquirer (PDI) reported that two casino resorts were set to be built in Boracay. The Inquirer added that the two resort operations had already been in the works during the Aquino administration.

SPIES, SCANDALS & GUN CONTROL

On the foreign front, the first week of March saw Britain openly blaming Moscow for the poisoning on British soil of a Russian military intelligence officer-cum-British spy and his daughter.

More than 20 nations led by the United States backed Britain’s expulsion of Russian diplomats from the United Kingdom.

Russia hit back by announcing that it will expel 60 US diplomats and close down the US Consulate in St. Petersburg.

By the end of the month, Britain said it was mulling over Russia’s request for access to the Russian double agent who lived in spite of the poison attack.

Paul McCartney and wife Nancy Shevell join the March for Our Lives protest in New York

In the U.S.—some two weeks after a pornstar named Stormy Daniels claimed she had an affair with Donald Trump—tens of thousands of students, teachers, activists, and celebrities marched in the streets of Los Angeles, New York, and other cities in America to call for stricter gun control laws.

Led by students from the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland Florida, where a gunman killed 17 students in February, the “March for Our Lives” was openly regarded as a show of outrage and political activism among young people across the U.S.

Celebrities who joined the march included actor  George Clooney and his wife Amal, singers Demi Lovato and Taylor Swift, Arianna Grande, and former Beatle Paul McCartney who was there for his bandmate John Lennon, who was shot to death in 1980 outside Lennon’s New York City home.

DEPARTED

Stephen Hawking

Death claimed five local television and movie personalities in March—talent manager Cornelia Lee, more popularly known as Angge, (March 1); veteran actor Bernardo Bernardo (March 8); Rolly Quizon, son of comedian Dolphy (March 15); comedianne Mely Tagasa, who played Ms. Tapia in the popular 80s sitcom “Iskul Bukol” (March 24); and singer Bert Nievera, father of balladeer Martin Nievera (March 28).

 

March also saw the death of legendary physicist and author of A Brief History of Time Stephen Hawking (March 14). He was 76.

GOOD NEWS

A bit of good news on the first week of March was the release of the U.S. News survey that had the Philippines ranked no. 1 in 20 best countries to invest in for 2018. 

The survey reportedly covered over 21,000 people around the world and 80 countries measured along 65 different attributes like cultural influence, entrepreneurship, and quality of life.

The Business Expectations Survey (BES) of the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP) likewise showed that business optimism was more upbeat in the second quarter of the year.

Although respondents cited the inflationary impact of the tax reform law on their less than upbeat outlook during the first three months of the year, firms noted the positive impact of tax reform on the next quarter, the BSP said.

HUMAN RIGHTS

The International Criminal Court (ICC) took center-stage by the second week of March as President Rodrigo Duterte announced the withdrawal of the Philippines from the ICC on March 14.

Before that, there was an exchange of harsh words between Duterte and the United Nations (UN) High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein 

The Philippine Daily Inquirer reported that Duterte ordered soldiers and police not to answer questions from human rights investigators, adding that their silence was protected by the Philippine Constitution.

Pres. Rodrigo Duterte

The UN High Commissioner countered by saying that Duterte needed “psychiatric evaluation.”

CNN Philippines reported that Zeid also condemned Duterte’s remarks against women in the New People’s Army.

By March 14, Duterte, according to the Philippine Star, said it was apparent that the ICC was being utilized as a political tool against the Philippines.

In a 15-page statement reported by Reuters, the President said he was withdrawing from the Rome Statute, the ICC’s founding treaty, because of “baseless, unprecedented, and outrageous attacks” by UN officials and ICC actions that failed to follow due process and presumption of innocence.

The ICC, in February, announced that it was initiating a preliminary examination on extrajudicial killing allegations in the Philippines, based on a complaint made by Jude Sabio, lawyer of confessed hitman Edgar Matobato who said in a Senate hearing that Duterte, then a mayor, had a hand in the extrajudicial killings in Davao City.

Based on the Rome Statute, the Philippine government’s withdrawal from the ICC will only be effective on March 17, 2019—allowing the international court to continue criminal investigations and proceedings once it started before the withdrawal was effective.

Unfazed, the President urged other nations to likewise quit the ICC.

Of the 139 states that signed the Rome Statute, 32 have not yet ratified the treaty. Israel, Sudan and the US have unsigned the Rome Statute, indicating that they no longer intend to become a party to the treaty. These countries have no legal obligations arising from their signature of the statute.

ON THE HOT SEAT

Duterte’s withdrawal from the ICC was eclipsed by the furor that erupted over the consecutive actions of the Department of Justice on the second and third week of March.

On March 12, the media broke the news that a DOJ resolution, dated Dec. 20, 2017 cleared self-confessed drug dealer Kerwin Espinosa, suspected Central Visayas drug lord Peter Lim, and 20 others of drug charges for lack of evidence.

Controversy swirled around two consecutive actions of the Department of Justice on the second and third week of March

The following day, Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II explained that the decision was not yet final and immediately moved to create a new panel to review the Dec. 20 resolution of the DOJ.

And even while public outcry over the dismissal of charges against Espinosa and Lim remained unabated, another controversy involving the DOJ once again grabbed the headlines.

This time, it involved pork barrel scam suspect Janet Lim Napoles. The media found out that Napoles was now under the DOJ’s Witness Protection Program (WPP).

Aguirre qualified that Napoles was only under provisional coverage as possible state witness.

Napoles has a string of plunder charges: a P224-million case before the Sandiganbayan’s First Division that also involves former Senator and actor Ramon “Bong” Revilla; a P172-million plunder case together with former Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile; and a P183-million plunder case with former Sen. Joseph ‘Jinggoy’ Estrada, pending before the Fifth Division.

In the midst of the uproar against Napoles becoming a possible state witness, Aguirre cancelled the resolution clearing Espinosa, Lim and 20 others on March 21.  He also told the media that he had formed a new panel of prosecutors that will review the original resolution and receive new evidence on the case.

Still, on March 28, the Presidential Anti-Corruption Commission (PACC) recommended the filing of administrative charges against the DOJ prosecutors that dismissed the case against Espinosa, Lim, and and 20 others.

HOUSE RULES

Three bills were passed by the Lower House in March: one opposed by the Catholic Church, another opposed by anti-Marcos activists, and one applauded by the poor.

AP Photo/Bullit Marquez

On March 19, the House approved on third and final reading the Divorce Bill, a landmark measure considering the Philippines and the Vatican are the two countries that still do not have divorce.

A total of 134 congressmen voted for the bill, 57 voted against it while 2 abstained. The catch: there is no counterpart Divorce Bill in the Senate.

The House also passed a bill that will abolish the Presidential Commission on Good Government (PCGG), the agency tasked to recover the estimated $10 billion ill-gotten wealth of the late strongman Ferdinand Marcos and his family.

The third bill, passed on March 31, is the Anti-Privatization of Public Hospitals, Health Facilities, and Health Services Act or House Bill 7437—authored by Makabayan bloc party-list Representatives Carlos Zarate of Bayan Muna; Antonio Tinio and France Castro of Alliance of Concerned Teachers; Arlene Brosas and Emerenciana de Jesus of Gabriela, Ariel Casilao of Anakpawis and Sarah Elago of Kabataan.

The Act bars the Health Secretary or any other person from initiating, causing or approving the privatization of any public hospital, public health facility or public services, whether natural or juridical.

Also in March, 61 lawmakers from the Lower House urged President Duterte to resume peace talks with the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP), the political arm of the Communist Party of the Philippines-New People’s Army (CPP-NPA) that has been leading an armed countryside insurgency for almost half a century.

ROAD TO 2019

And as the last days of March unfolded, media caught the whiff of national and regional political parties getting ready for the 2019 elections.

On March 23, President Duterte called on the supporters of his once-political rivals to join him in nation-building.

In a Philippine Star report, Duterte urged them to forget political ties and move to form a partnership with his administration.

Three days later, on March 25, it was the turn of Davao City Mayor and Duterte’s eldest daughter Sara Duterte to state the position of their regional political party, Hugpong ng Pagbabago (HNP).

The HNP, according to an Inquirer report was co-founded by Duterte and is composed of Southern Mindanao governors.

The report added that the Davao City Mayor made it clear that  national politicians  seeking membership in the HNP could not join in as party regulars.

House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez, secretary-general of PDP-Laban

Also on March 25, the PDP-Laban held a mass oath-taking by its new members in Caloocan City.  There, House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez, secretary-general of PDP-Laban, bared the names of eight legislators and Palace officials that were said to be the PDP-Laban’s choices for its senatorial slate.

The list included: Senate President Aquilino Pimentel III, Special Assistant to the President Christopher “Bong” Go, Maguindanao Rep. Zajid Mangudadatu, Oriental Mindoro Rep. Reynaldo Umali, presidential adviser on political affairs Francis Tolentino, presidential spokesperson Harry Roque, Bataan Rep. Geraldine Roman and Davao Rep. Karlo Nograles.

The following day, Senate President and PDP-Laban president Aquilino Pimentel III said that re-electionist senators may form part of the PDP-Laban’s senatorial slate in the 2019 mid-term elections, for as long as they support federalism.

 

VP Leni Robredo/AP Photo/Bullit Marquez

Over at the other side of the political fence, Vice-President and Liberal Party (LP) Chair Leni Robredo told the media in Cebu City that they are not even sure if the LP can complete its senatorial line-up.

Robredo added that the LP’s numbers have been decimated because of the defection of dozens of its members to Pres. Duterte’s PDP-Laban party.

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