Judicial Lessons for the Philippines

What has happened in two countries recently must be giving Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo the chills. In January, Pakistan's Supreme Court ordered the government to reopen cases against President Asif Ali Zardari, citing Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos and other heads of state who were taken to court to answer corruption charges. The Supreme Court asked the government to account for US$600 million in Zardari's bank accounts in Switzerland.

The Court also threw out an amnesty that shielded hundreds of powerful Pakistanis from prosecution. What is remarkable about Pakistan is that the court is going after a sitting president and other powerful officials.

In another part of the world, a Peruvian Supreme Court three-member panel in April 2009 sentenced former President Alberto Fujimori to 25 years in prison for his involvement in a military death squad during a conflict with guerrillas in the 1990s. The verdict came after more than a year of trial that was broadcast on national television.

"Justice was finally delivered—by one of our own courts," wrote Maria McFarland Sanchez-Moreno of Human Rights Watch. "This suggests that next time Peruvians may be able to put their trust in democratic institutions."

Segue to the Philippines, where President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo is seeking to appoint a successor to Chief Justice Reynato Puno, who is to step down on May 17 –seven days after Arroyo's successor is elected to office in national polls. There is a constitutional ban on appointments 60 days before elections. Her term officially ends on June 30. The law is meant to avoid vote-buying and seeking favors through appointments.

In the light of the actions in Pakistan and Peru, it is easy to see why President Arroyo insists on appointing the next chief justice. The favor is to herself.

On Monday, former government officials and members of reformist groups, along with law students, joined what was called a "solidarity march" to urge the sitting court not to grant a petition that would allow Arroyo the power to appoint the next chief justice. The protesters included a chapter of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines, the National Union of People's Lawyers, Akbayan and staff of the University of the Philippines Collegian as well as a flock of other groups.

It is now up to the Supreme Court, which Arroyo has already packed with her appointees, to decide this issue. People who know Mrs. Arroyo say it's really all about fear. On two grounds—human rights violations and corruption— Arroyo may find herself vulnerable. Arroyo's presidency has been mired with corruption scandals. It was also during her term that the number of extra-judicial killing of activists increased.

In particular, a long series of scandals have been laid directly at Arroyo's doorstep. In one, the government was forced to abandon the US$330 million National Broadband Project to connect all government agencies across the country after testimony emerged that top officials close to Arroyo – including her husband, Mike, had accepted millions of pesos in bribes from ZTE Corp. to build the network. In another, millions of pesos were allegedly diverted from the country's fertilizer fund to help farmers into Arroyo's 2006 election campaign.

As to human rights violations, rights groups alleged as many as 800 leftist sympathizers were assassinated during her presidency when she set out to crack down on the New People's Army and other leftist groups. Some 51 were assassinated in the first half of 2006 alone. The murders were condemned in a strongly worded report by Amnesty International.

In neither case – corruption or the human rights violations – have the courts brought members of Arroyo's government to book or charged her directly. In the ZTE scandal, the Supreme Court refused to hear three petitions dealing with the matter.

The experiences of Pakistan and Peru should be helpful for human rights and public-interest law groups that plan to file suits versus the president and her family soon after she steps down – should they get the chance.

Personalities on the Court matter a lot as well. It has been the tradition to appoint the most senior as chief justice. That would be the feisty Antonio Carpio, who has shown his independence in various decisions, especially when he thwarted President Arroyo's allies' move to amend the Constitution and extend their terms and that of Mrs. Arroyo.

However, Arroyo's most likely choice for chief justice is Renato Corona, the next most senior member of the court – and also her former chief of staff and spokesman. He is obviously a loyal ally. His voting record on the Court speaks for itself; he shares top billing with a couple of other justices when it comes to voting to defend Arroyo.

Chief Justice Reynato Puno, for his part, is far from Pakistan's Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry. Puno has not taken a position on this raging controversy. Compare this to Chaudhry, who, just a few weeks ago, clashed with President Zardari over the appointment of a Supreme Court member. Zardari backed down, withdrew his choice and submitted a candidate whom Chaudhry did not oppose.

Still, what has happened in Pakistan and Peru has hit close to home. These countries' experiences are telling us that our own legal systems—led by the Supreme Court—could take on the powerful, provided they get the chance and provided that Arroyo is not allowed to make a midnight appointment of the new chief justice.

The author is a journalist. Her most recent book is "Shadow of Doubt: Probing the Supreme Court."