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Monday, August 22, 2005

Inquirer Editorial

Editorial : The fugitive

STRICTLY speaking, administration stalwart Rep. Prospero Pichay called it right. "[Former election commissioner] Garcillano is not a fugitive from justice. The Constitution guarantees his right to travel," the congressman said on Friday.

If the reports are accurate, the controversial election official left the country through Singapore more than a month ago, on July 14. Strictly speaking, there was no legal impediment to prevent him from boarding the plane: He had not yet been ordered arrested by the House of Representatives; he was not the subject of a hold-departure order; he faced neither prosecution nor conviction before a court.

It is that last condition that the Department of Foreign Affairs, under heavy criticism for its perceived role in Garcillano's "escape," now finds itself giving emphasis to.

"The DFA or the DOJ (the Department of Justice) is NOT the proper forum to determine whether Garcillano is a fugitive from justice or not. That function belongs to the Philippine Courts," a note at the top of the department's website explained. (Emphasis in the original.)

The note also quoted from a year-old DOJ opinion based on two Supreme Court decisions: The label of "fugitive from justice" applies "not only (to) those who flee after conviction to avoid punishment but likewise to those who, after being charged, flee to avoid prosecution."

Strictly speaking, Garcillano does not fit into these categories; not now, and not when he left for Singapore. But the Arroyo administration would be in serious error if it thinks that the matter can be left at that.

Sen. Panfilo Lacson, a leader of the political opposition and a former chief of the Philippine National Police, has insisted that the controversial election official could not have left the country's borders without the help of contacts in the Bureau of Immigration. "My suspicion is that it is the government which allowed Garci to leave," Lacson said. Even someone leaving through the so-called back door would need "exit stamps" from a BI contact, for instance. "Who has the capacity to do that? Only the government or the administration," Lacson said.

Strictly speaking, one does not need to conspire with the entire government to be able to leave the country undetected; one needs to conspire only with officials in the right places. Many fugitives have done exactly that, including former top police officers known to Lacson himself.

But this is cold comfort for the administration. In the public view, the flight of Garcillano was obviously conducted in secrecy; therefore, it was a conspiracy of the entire government.

It is important to note that, since the Hello Garci scandal broke out on June 6, Garcillano broke his silence only once: He spoke by telephone with an Inquirer reporter, from an undisclosed location, in an arrangement facilitated by Pichay, and then mainly to say that during the campaign and the count last year he talked with other candidates as well.

Other than that, his silence on the main allegation against him and the President has been ear-splitting.

The administration may wish to turn down the decibel level, but the only way to do that is to find Garcillano. If it had acted earlier, to meet the opposition's demand that Garcillano face the five-panel hearing in Congress on the alleged wiretapping, a strenuous effort to locate Garcillano may have sufficed to mute public suspicion. Now it is too late. Nothing less than finding the controversial election expert himself will allay public doubt about Garcillano's flight.

For the President's defenders, that is the crux of the matter: Garcillano's flight looks like an admission of the President's guilt. If for that reason alone, the administration must let Garcillano surface.

The President's crisis is essentially one of legitimacy. The best venue for presenting the strongest evidence against the President, and for the President to present her strongest defense, is through the impeachment process. But if Garcillano remains missing from the equation, the numbers will never add up. If Garcillano never appears as a witness, the legitimacy issue will remain. If Garcillano remains inaccessible for inexplicable reasons, the crisis will fester, regardless of the administration's wiliest impeachment-case maneuvers.

In the public view, Garcillano is already a fugitive-if not from justice, then from the truth.

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