Like a hero from an action movie, Rodrigo Duterte took the mantle of a crusader against illegal narcotics and corrupt politicians during the 2016 Presidential Elections. He portrayed himself as the savior who can rid the country of these ills, a “strongman” who could get the job done. It is nine months into his administration and we have seen the polar opposite of an anti-corruption drive.
Even during his campaign, Duterte already contradicted his self-proclaimed zero tolerance of corruption by discussing the possibility of releasing former politicians held in detention for serious corruption charges. In January 2016, he hinted the release of former Senators Bong Revilla and Jinggoy Estrada – both held for their involvement in the 2013 Pork Barrel Scam. The controversy was then-called the “Mother of All Corruption Scandals”, involving billions of pesos in plundered public funds and dozens of elected lawmakers implicated.
The arrest of the two high-profile lawmakers challenged the long-held belief that there are government officials “too big to fall”, both are members of powerful political dynasties. Their downfall was a victory for anti-corruption advocates and a vindication for the whistleblowers who risked their lives to testify against these powerful personalities. Dismissing the charges against the two Senators, just as Duterte hinted at doing, will be demoralizing to all those who worked to bring them to justice.
Even worse, the President has also supported the release of Janet Napoles – the businesswoman at the center of the entire controversy. It can be remembered that she was the owner of several dummy non-government organizations (NGOs) that received funding from the lawmakers’ pork. She was arrested in 2013 for the illegal detention of her cousin and eventual star witness in the corruption case, Benhur Luy. In 2015, she was sentenced to life imprisonment for the crime and until now is still facing other cases for her involvement in the Pork Barrel Scam.
The 2013 Pork Barrel Scam was considered the creme de la creme of government corruption exposes since it revealed the methodology public officials used to siphon taxpayer funds into their own pockets. The estimated amount plundered in the ten years that Janet Napoles had transacted with her clientele was Php10 billion, equivalent to the annual budget of a local government of a large city. All potential development lost because of the greed of politicians – such injustice deserves the full force of the law.
Deciding which side to take should be a no-brainer for someone claiming to have zero tolerance for government corruption, but inexplicably President Duterte has aligned himself with the side of the corrupt. He has not just promised freedom for Revilla, Estrada and Napoles but has already granted former President Gloria Arroyo freedom after being in hospital arrest for corruption charges as well.
With such generosity afforded to corrupt government officials, it is no wonder that we have seen a spate of corrupt activities recently. In December, two of Duterte’s appointees to the Bureau of Immigration were outed to have accepted a bribe from a gambling lord. While last month we learned that crooked cops were behind the kidnapping and murder of Korean businessman, Jee Ick Joo. The brazenness of these crimes, perpetrated by those supposedly appointed to serve the public, should not come as a surprise if the head-of-state himself excuses them.