The Long View: Price of conviction

Price of conviction

By Manuel L. Quezon III
First Posted 03:31am (Mla time) 03/12/2007

THROUGHOUT HISTORY, LEGISLATURES HAVE been jealously protective of the independence of their members. Parliaments and congresses have generally been quick to resist and condemn police power – and those who command that power – whenever wielded by the executive branch against them and their members on the principle that “when the guns speak, the law falls silent.” The principle includes lawmakers whose only armament, more often than not, is making noise.

The most famous and cautionary tale about legislatures involves King Charles I of England who antagonized Parliament when he tried to dissolve it. In response, Members of Parliament (MPs) physically pinned down the Speaker of the House as he was about to transmit the King’s order; they then locked Parliament’s doors to continue their debate, and the King retaliated by locking up some MPs.

In 1641, informed that Parliament was poised to impeach his Queen, Charles I decided to arrest five members of the House of Commons. The King barged into the Commons with an armed guard, but the MPs he wanted to apprehend had fled. Humiliated, the King left London. Parliament raised an army. By 1642, the King had raised his own, and the English Civil War became inevitable. It ended with Charles’ execution and Parliament’s pyrrhic victory which ushered in the dictatorship of Oliver Cromwell.

When President Marcos heard Congress might challenge his proclamation of martial law, he had the legislative building seized by soldiers and the Senate padlocked. He then rushed the ratification of a new constitution to consolidate his rule.

During the effort to impeach then Chief Justice Hilario Davide, there was the real possibility that the Supreme Court might hand down a restraining order on the House. This could have led to a situation where the executive would have to order the police to shutter the House. Faced with this possibility, Speaker Jose de Venecia, in one unquestionable act of statesmanship, delivered an impassioned, extemporaneous speech that successfully headed off a constitutional crisis.

In 1989 and 2001, the executive ordered the apprehension of legislators accused of participating in plots to overthrow the government. In both instances, members of Congress expressed unease with such orders, though generally favored by public opinion because violence had hit the streets.

In 2005, there was an attempt to arrest House members. The Speaker intervened and offered sanctuary to the congressmen in danger of arrest. Except in the case of Rep. Crispin Beltran, who was placed under hospital arrest and remains in detention to this day, the will of the executive was thwarted. The case against them collapsed in court. The Constitution grants legislators immunity from arrest only when Congress is in session, and for crimes that carry a penalty of six years imprisonment or less. So why then, did the Speaker insist on providing the congressmen with sanctuary within the House’s premises? The reason was basic. Whatever the criticisms against him, the Speaker has shown a conscious appreciation of the limits that Congress, as an institution, has to insist on in the face of the police power wielded against it.

Sec. 40, Chapter 10 of the Administrative Code of the Philippines states: “All public officers and employees of the government including every member of the armed forces shall, before entering upon the discharge of his duties, take an oath or affirmation to uphold and defend the Constitution; that he will bear true faith and allegiance to it; obey the laws, legal orders and decrees promulgated by the duly constituted authorities; faithfully discharge to the best of his ability the duties of the office or position upon which he is about to enter; and that he voluntarily assumes the obligation imposed by his oath of office, without mental reservation or purpose of evasion.”

We forget that whatever our opinions may be about the ideological positions of certain representatives, they have taken an oath as public officers. It is an oath that the vast majority of the citizenry never have taken, and never will take. Since the government loves to harp on the “presumption of legality” to the extent it makes me want to scream, then it is duty-bound to respect the same when it comes to its enemies who hold public office.

But the case of Rep. Satur Ocampo, they say, has nothing to do with his conduct as a legislator; they accuse him of complicity in many murders. Ocampo’s partisans, of course, insist the charges are trumped-up; that as a beneficiary of a past amnesty, he is immune from being charged with newly discovered crimes.

I believe that the charges are so grave, and their implications so serious for the movement and ideology he has at one time or another been identified with, that he must face them squarely and under whatever circumstances, fair or not, that a trial may play out.

To do otherwise is to permit the blurring of the line between those who share his ideology but work within the political system, and those who pursue armed struggle. And the more blurred that line becomes, the greater the peril to his fellow activists who are armed with the very same weapon he possesses: mere words.

The only reason the police have the nerve to violate the Bill of Rights and barge into Ocampo’s house under the pretext of serving a warrant of arrest is that Congress is no longer in session and institutionally, the House can’t stand up for one of its own. That, and a reality neither Ocampo nor his supporters are prepared to admit: if the government is haunted by its human rights record, so is the CPP-NPA-NDF. The courage of Ocampo as a person and an ideologue is beyond question; in which case, he must adopt the strategy of Fidel Castro, and face his accusers in the dock and say, “History will absolve me.”

Manuel L. Quezon III.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.