On Executive Clemency
by Manuel L. Quezon III
In ancient societies, kings and emperors were judges, juries, and executioners all rolled into one. Today, the power of presidents to grant pardons, is a reminder that in the past, justice was usually in the hands of one man, and therefore, mercy was as much a matter of a king or emperor’s whims, as was the administration of justice.
Here is the dilemma, then, between what pardoning is supposed to achieve — tempering justice with mercy — and the pardoning power being in the hands of those who may not wield power with either justice or mercy in mind.
In the wake of President Arroyo’s pardoning former President Estrada, what I think we can do, is look at how other presidents have used their pardoning power.
Research by the director of the Malacanang Museum, Jeremy Barns, has determined that Dona Teodora Alonso went to Malacanan Palace to beg for the life of her son, Jose Rizal. She and her daughters — though it is debated whether she, and not just her daughters, actually went — didn’t get as far as the gate, where a secretary of the governor-general eventually talked to them, was given a message, relayed it to the governor-general, and who eventually told them their appeal would be rejected.
Whatever the actual circumstances, for the generation alive during the revolution and beyond, a powerful legend arose. Rizal’s mother, according to the legend, climbed Malacanang’s stairs on her knees. A very Filipino thing to do: What mother would not abase herself to beg for her son’s life, particularly when the law is inexorably — and unfairly — enforced?
And this points to the reason our presidents have eagerly used their pardoning power. After centuries of an essentially alien and arbitrary legal system, Filipino chief executives had to prove they were more capable of dispensing justice, than their predecessors, the foreign governors-general.
President Quezon said he always commuted death sentences with that legend in mind. He himself liked going to New Bilibid prison and gathering the convicts to hear their appeals. Press accounts of the time record his listening to the appeals and deciding whether to grant clemency on the spot.
For political crimes, though, he was more inclined to be cautious than in judging the cases of the poor.
The Supreme Court on Oct. 26, 1932, upheld a lower court’s ruling resulting in twenty communist leaders being sentenced to eight years and one day of “destierro”, or banishment to the provinces. The American communist James Allen, in pursuit of a united front policy against fascism, approached Quezon for the internal exile to be lifted. This was granted on Dec. 31, 1936. An absolute pardon was granted on Christmas Eve, 1938. There was no rush to clemency.
This distinction between the need to swiftly grant clemency to the poor, and the need to temper official clemency with prudence in the case of political crimes, has a tangible symbol in the Palace.
There is another reminder of the power to pardon, and that is a large table made of the finest native hardwoods, that is the central feature of the Reception Hall of the Palace. It was carved by ex-convicts as a present to President Quezon. The convicts carved the table to remind the recipient of who they were — people who had received executive clemency.
The table was a focal point of the Palace’s Reception Hall until the presidency of Marcos. It became the dining table at Arlegui during the Aquino and Ramos administrations, and was returned to the Palace by President Estrada to serve as a dining table, until President Arroyo restored it to its traditional place for a time. Now, she uses it as a dining table again, literally feasting on the gratitude of convicts.
These symbols in the official residence of our presidents points to the importance of the power to pardon and commute, and it is one our presidents should not take lightly.
In a country where every chief executive makes a personal commitment to “do justice to every man,” it is a powerful reminder of how our presidents are viewed as having a personal relationship with every citizen. I cannot think of any president who did not use the power to pardon and commute sentences, but most exercised this power with a bias for the poor, and greater prudence in the case of political crimes.
President Manuel Roxas didn’t pardon people accused of treason, but did issue an amnesty proclamation covering acts of treason, with the concurrence of Congress. In 1948, Jose P. Laurel could accept amnesty, because up to then, it didn’t require an admission of guilt.
President Elpidio Quirino, in an effort to prevent civil war, tried offering amnesty on June 21, 1948 to the Hukbalahap, but by August that year, negotiations had broken down.
But since 1963, accepting amnesty, according to the Supreme Court, requires an admission of guilt, which has made it less effective, Bernas says, as a means to heal past divisions.
Where Quirino was more successful was in granting pardon to Japanese war criminals.
Quirino pardoned Japanese prisoners convicted of crimes against the citizenry during the occupation. The public, in general, accepted Quirino’s granting executive clemency to foster the healing of the wounds of the war. Quirino had the moral ascendancy to grant such a pardon because the Japanese had killed his wife and all but two of his children. If a president, who’d suffered so harshly at the hands of the Japanese could find it in his heart to forgive them in the nation’s name, the nation could accept it.
Ramon Magsaysay criticized many pardons granted by his predecessor, Quirino, but also granted pardons to the poor and to former Huks willing to surrender to the state. President Carlos P. Garcia in turn, was criticized by Diosdado Macapagal for freely granting pardons shortly before he left office.
In his memoirs, President Macapagal said from jail, Huk leader Luis Taruc petitioned Macapagal for executive clemency, and for a general amnesty to political offenders. In exchange, Taruc said former rebels would support Macapagal’s social welfare program. Macapagal refused.
There was one spectacular case where Macapagal provoked outrage on the part of the public, because, the public felt, Macapagal used his powers to get someone off the hook.
The Lucio Tan of the 1950s and 1960s was an American named Harry Stonehill, a bigshot in the tobacco business. The late Jose W. Diokno, serving in Macapagal’s Cabinet, mounted an investigation that revealed Stonehill had been freely, and lavishly giving financial contributions to dozens of prominent politicians, including Senate President Marcos and possibly Macapagal himself.
Arrest and trial would have devastated the political class. But the public outrage was so strong, Stonehill had to be arrested. On Aug. 3, 1962 Macapagal ordered Stonehill deported. And then, Macapagal fired Diokno.
Marcos used his powers tactically, of course. He eventually released Taruc from jail and thereby gained the former Huk leader’s support. He allowed Ninoy Aquino to seek medical treatment abroad, on condition Aquino refrain from participating in politics, a condition Aquino promptly ignored once in exile.
President Cory Aquino released political prisoners and then found her government constantly under attack from those she freed.
President Ramos arranged amnesties for the Aquino era rebels, most particularly the Left, Muslims, and Rightist soldiers. This enabled political closure but not, as the book “Closer than Brothers”, discusses, moral closure for the military’s human rights violations.
President Estrada, too, preferred to restore Marcos’s allies to authority, since he was a Marcos loyalist himself. He and President Arroyo both tended to view pardons and amnesties from a purely pragmatic, political perspective.
That being said, it is not too much to have expected former President Estrada to have taken his medicine like a man, and endured even New Bilibid itself if he was so sure he was innocent. The truth is, he gave up; he preferred his own freedom to being a symbol; yet by doing so, forgot that is why he’d become president and wasn’t just another fading matinee idol.