The chief justice’s last stand?

Renato Corona’s court appearance, with its feeling of a Hollywood-style melodrama, could only have happened in the Philippines.

Nothing short of high drama was expected – and that’s exactly what Filipinos got.

Singapore elder statesman Lee Kuan Yew was once quoted as saying “this Hollywood-style melodrama could only have happened in the Philippines” in reference to a previous political hi-jink – and he might have said the same now.

It was to be the climax of the battle between the executive and the judicial branches of government. A colourful clash of the “old” and the “new”. Depending on who was looking at it.

On the one hand, the two-year-old self-proclaimed reformist administration of President Benigno Aquino III working to rid the nation of “institutionalised corruption”.

On the other hand, the controversial chief justice, insisting he was a victim of a personal “hatred” and vendetta against him by a “petty politician” from a longstanding wealthy, powerful clan that had long been part of the establishment.

A close ally of Aquino’s unpopular predecessor Gloria Arroyo, Renato Corona was appointed supreme court chief justice when Arroyo had only one month left in her term.

It was seen by many Filipinos as a move by Arroyo to protect herself from possible prosecution after she stepped down for alleged wrong-doings while in office.

Corona had also famously ruled against Aquino’s family in earlier court cases. For Aquino supporters, Corona was the personification of all that was wrong with country.

For others, it was the vilification of a dedicated public servant who had didn’t carry favour with the new head of state.

Corruption and favouritism

So where were we? Ah yes, the 40th day of the chief justice’s impeachment trial.

He was expected to take the witness stand, face scrutiny and answer questions about allegations of corruption and favouritism.

Among them that he had some $10m in unexplained wealth amassed in 82 bank accounts – information that was revealed by the ombudsman last week when she was called to testify by Corona’s own defence counsel.

His lawyers thought she wouldn’t have any evidence to back such allegations. But they were wrong. As were the expectations of how Corona’s own testimony would play out.

At the appointed hour on Tuesday, Corona walked into the senate session hall that served as his court room neatly dressed in a dark suit with a pink shirt and tie.

His family, offering support and wearing matching colours, were sitting in the side-lines.  All 23 senator-judges were also in attendance.

A prayer was said, Corona was sworn in, and then asked if he could make an opening statement. Given his position, he was allowed to do so.

But his emotional opening statement went on for three hours. It included a power-point presentation and occasional cracks in the chief justice’s voice.

He was interrupted several times and reminded that anything he said could be used against him and cross-examined later. He went on nonetheless.

Pleading his innocence

Pleading his innocence and attacking the Aquino administration in turn, Corona, when he was done, declared:  “And now the chief justice of the republic of the Philippines wishes to be excused.”

Corona walked out of the session hall then, catching even his defence team unawares and stunned. [Days earlier, they had already said they were not privy to what Corona was planning to say or do.] 

Visibly gob-smacked, the presiding senator-judge then ordered the entire senate compound be locked down.

No one would be allowed in – or out – until the chief justice was found and brought back into the session hall.

In front of televisions across the country, Filipinos watched the unfolding drama agape, wondering what would happen next.

News presenters scrambled to fill air-time as defence lawyers went in search of the defendant and senator-judges held a caucus to figure out what to do.

A local TV channel said it had footage showing Corona’s car already waiting at the entrance to ferry him away from the compound it was feared Corona would flee.

Corona’s last statement to the court was that he had given permission for his bank accounts to be made public on the condition that all 188 congressmen who signed the impeachment complaint against him do the same in a “moment of truth and reconciliation”.

 “I’m no thief,” he said. “I’m no criminal. I’ve done no wrong. But I am also no fool.”

Dishevelled and silent

It was a challenge, but his subsequent behaviour was considered an “affront” by the legislators.

Corona had been “disrespectful”, they said, and he would be made to pay for it.

The presiding senator said that if the chief justice was not brought back in, they would be forced to hand down a verdict much sooner than scheduled and he mightnot be happy with the result.

In less than an hour, Corona was back in the courtroom. In a wheelchair, sans coat, dishevelled and silent.

After speaking to him privately, his lawyers then told the court that Corona had felt faint which is why he excused himself earlier.

He was diabetic and his blood sugar levels had dropped.

He was incapable of going on and needed medical attention.  A collective gasp could almost be heard across the nation.

Filipinos had seen this before.  Many high-ranking politicians had suffered similar fates while facing charges.

Most recently, Gloria Arroyo. She was taken to the airport in an ambulance and tried to leave the country at a time when she was about to face prosecution for electoral fraud.

The images of the former president wearing a neck-brace while in a wheelchair dominated the headlines for weeks. 

She was stopped at immigration – and subsequently arrested. (Included in the charges against Corona are allegations that he had tried to stop her arrest.

Due to Arroyo’s medical condition, her lawyers managed to keep her out of jail by arranging for her to be put under a more comfortable “hospital arrest” instead.

She is still in hospital pending her trial.

Political telenovela

So where is Corona now? In hospital. Quite possibly going to be declared incapable of returning to the senate on Wednesday to face cross-examination. 

Many Filipinos feel the whole oration was a weak stunt orchestrated to either gain sympathy or get the chief justice out of a tough situation they felt he could not win.

As it is Corona could still leave the country.

The impeachment doesn’t mean there are criminal charges against him – and he is not facing arrest.

If found guilty, he would lose his position, but until criminal charges are filed after this political trial, and he is taken
into custody, he is still a free man.

Although not directly involved in deciding the verdict, the Aquino administration has made it clear it would not stop until such alleged corrupt public servants are brought to justice.

The problem is, there is very little trust in the system anymore.

So used are Filipinos to it being manipulated to suit the powerful’s whims.

The only thing anyone can do now is stayed tuned again tomorrow, and the day after that, until another chapter in their continuing political telenovela is played out.

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