Contrary to expectation, the conviction of former Philippine President Joseph Estrada on Wednesday, Sept. 12, was greeted calmly by the Filipino people.
Former president Joseph Estrada leaves the Sandiganbayan anti-graft court in Quezon City shortly after the court handed down its guilty verdict against him.
There was no massive outpouring of anger against the government of President Gloria Arroyo as only about 300 supporters of the deposed president trooped to the street outside the special anti-graft court which earlier sentenced Estrada to a maximum of 40 years in jail for the crime of plunder.
The muted reaction was in contrast to what happened in 2001 when thousands of Estrada supporters tried to lay siege to the Malacanang presidential palace shortly after Estrada’s ouster. In that confrontation, four people were killed and more than 100 were arrested when Arroyo called in the troops to quash the unrest.
To prevent a repeat of that incident, which later became known as the third People Power Revolt, Arroyo ordered a massive deployment of police and military forces in the Philippine capital prior to Wednesday’s court verdict.
But as it turned out, the Arroyo critics’ earlier pronouncement that the troop deployment was an overkill proved to be correct.
Although it would be foolhardy to dismiss Estrada’s close ties with the Filipino masses, the long years spent by the former president inside his comfortable rest house, which serves as his detention facility, appeared to have drained the appetite of his supporters for retribution.
It is to be expected of course that the die-hard supporters of the former president will not stop in their bid to free Estrada through legal channels.
For sure, this is not the end of the Estrada case. His lawyers said they will appeal the court’s verdict. Eventually, it will be up to the Supreme Court to hand down the final judgment on the man most Filipinos simply call as “Erap.”
Regardless of where their sympathy lies, Filipinos may console themselves with the thought that justice has been given due course, and that the rule of law — and democracy for that matter — have been strengthened in the process.
The crime of plunder – the highest level of corruption — for which Estrada was tried and found guilty is a serious one. As such, the maximum penalty of 40 years in jail could be considered as stiff yet fair punishment.
Even if he claims that the Filipino people have already acquitted him, Estrada must accept the court’s decision.
While the world views the court’s decision as a triumph of justice, the Philippines must not relax it vigilance and must likewise uphold the rule of law in other cases involving high officials of the land.
The Filipinos could not be expected to sit idly by while a double standard of justice is practiced in their country — one for the perceived enemies of the government and another for those who are close to the powers that be.
Attempts to cover up misdeeds and wrongdoing at all levels of government must be exposed and the guilty ones punished.
Estrada’s trial is undoubtedly a landmark event in contemporary Philippine political history. Whatever its ultimate outcome, it should send a clear message not only across the Philippines but throughout the world as well that the law should apply to all, and that the rule of law must prevail at all times.