By Romel Regalado Bagares
On March 10, 1998 – after some 25 years in power – Chilean strongman Augusto Pinochet relinquished his power to his supposed successor, Gen. Ricardo Izurieta. He left behind him a murderous legacy: 3,197 victims of executions, disappearances and killings from nearly three decades of a reign of terror as a US-backed military dictator. An estimated 1,000 of these victims have been disappeared and nearly 90 percent of them remain missing to this day.
Yet the dictator’s return to civilian life was by no means ordinary. On the contrary, he made sure he would be shielded under Chilean law from being prosecuted for his atrocious human rights record.
First, he put in place a constitution under which only his top generals could be appointed as chief of state.
Second, he made sure that before he stepped down from office, the rubber stamp Chilean parliament had already passed an amnesty law that virtually absolved him of any criminal responsibility for the human rights violations committed under his regime.
Third, he did not exactly disappear from public life from then on because the very next day, he occupied a new office at the Senate as a senator for life, in the splendid company of former military underlings and cabinet ministers who, under his direction, wielded power as unelected legislators who could veto together any proposed legislation.
Fourth, his parliamentary office meant that he enjoyed constitutional immunity from any suit or criminal proceeding. This was because the rules of the time required that an appeals court must first strip him of immunity and suspend him from his legislative post before he could be charged in court. Also, his senatorial office afforded him with the power to stifle detractors by prosecuting them under a law on state security.
Mrs. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s stepping down from the heights of power wracked by allegations of unprecedented corruption and numerous human rights violations was no less inspired.
First, she made sure she would remain in the political limelight by running for a congressional post in her hometown Lubao, Pampanga. And she assured her win in the elections by pampering her cabalens with development projects and doleouts sourced from her nearly limitless access to public funds while she was still President.
Without doubt, in a country where congressmen are often seen as untouchables, she thought that being a member of the House of Representatives afforded her with some measure of protection from any legal maneuver aimed at her direction by her successor, Benigno Aquino III.
Second, with the help of allies in the House of Representatives, she carved out a new congressional district in the Bicol region for her own son, Datu Arroyo, who could add additional weight to her power bloc at the Lower House.
Third, her own allies also fielded new entrants to the House of Representatives through the party-list elections, and her son Mikey Arroyo made it through this back-door entrance to the legislature as a joke of a representative for security guards, plus a good number of others.
Finally, for the piece de resistance, she packed the High Court with her appointees, and in the closing days of her administration, picked Renato C. Corona as her chief justice, over against a long-standing rule in the Constitution that prohibited such a so-called “midnight appointment.”
A Supreme Court ruled by a majority of her own appointees and presided over by her former chief of staff and presidential legal counsel was her security from any attempt to prosecute her for her legacy of profligate governance and record human rights violations not seen in the country since the martial days.
With Mr. Corona as primus inter pares at the High Court, any conviction for any criminal offense in the lower court can be easily overturned on appeal to the Supreme Court.
With Mr. Corona at the helm, any criminal proceeding against her can be torpedoed before it could prosper through the simple device of a Temporary Restraining Order (TRO).
Indeed, when it became obvious that the Aquino administration was bent on bringing her to the bars of justice, she collected on her ultimate insurance from prosecution and obtained a TRO against the Department of Justice, which had prevented her from leaving the country on the pretext that she needed urgent medical treatment abroad for a life-threatening illness.
But like Pinochet, she could not count on history to flow according to her wishes.
In the case of the Chilean strongman, he also invoked a life-threatening sickness to seek treatment abroad, following a decision by the Chilean Supreme Court stripping him of immunity from any kind of suit. His city of choice: London.
What ensued was a series of dramatic legal proceedings that begun when a Spanish judge issued international arrest warrants against the ailing Chilean dictator for the deaths of Spanish citizens in Chile at the height of his dictatorial rule. It culminated in a judgment that would be hailed by many human rights organizations and would come to be known as the Pinochet Precedent; that is, the principle that – in the words of the international legal scholar Philippe Sands – “no one is above the law.”
In the case of Mrs. Macapagal-Arroyo, what she did not count on was Justice Secretary Leila De Lima defying the deeply-flawed TRO issued by her beloved “midnight” Chief Justice at her behest.
And today, we witness the historic impeachment trial of the very same Chief Justice.*
This essay may also be read in my weekly column for the Iloilo City-based The News Today.