When the Going Gets Tough in the Philippines...

When former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo entered St. Luke’s Medical Center in Manila on July 28 for what was termed a “risky” operation reportedly to correct a pinched nerve in her spine, she was following in a long Filipino tradition.

With five plunder charges filed against the 64-year-old former chief executive, a quiet hospital room apparently seemed like the best bet. According to a report by the Manila-based Pacific Strategies and Assessments: “Hiding under the cloak of ‘basic human rights,’ a number of defendants have sought shelter from hospitals or cited medical excuses to delay investigations or prolong court hearings.”

(This tactic is somewhat different from the one used in Indonesia, for instance, where corruption allegations instead appear to be a signal to jump a flight to Singapore, and then escape to any of several other countries. The latest to be found and charged is Muhammad Nazaruddin, the former treasurer of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s Democratic Party, who got as far as Cartagena, Colombia, before Interpol found him and returned him. His wife is reportedly still on the run in an unspecified country. So is Nunun Nurbaeti, the key witness in another bribery case. She was last heard of in Cambodia. Other fugitives are scattered here and there.)

Hospital care is less stressful. Mike Arroyo, Gloria’s husband, the former First Gentleman, has staged a long series of delaying actions against appearing before legislative committees investigating charges against the two. Starting in 2003, he skipped hearings into allegations that he was maintaining a secret bank account under the name Jose Pidal, which was said to be used for bribing officials and for money-laundering. He cited his worsening heart condition as an excuse.

Although Arroyo reportedly has completely recovered from open heart surgery performed in 2007, he has continued to use his medical condition to skip investigations into various allegations of massive corruption. His brother, Representative Ignacio Arroyo, has also managed to miss Senate hearings because he was reportedly in London seeking treatment for a liver ailment.

Gloria Arroyo was preceded into the hospital by the former president, Joseph Estrada, who was ousted and then jailed in 2001, also on plunder charges. He was said to be suffering from osteoarthritis, a degenerative joint disease that was believed to have severely damaged both of his knees. When his reported decision to seek treatment in the United States stirred controversy, his lawyer charged that: "These groups that claim to be champions of human rights and civil liberties are the first to violate former President Estrada’s rights as a patient to choose his medical treatment when they oppose his appeal."

Estrada remained ill throughout the entire period of his house arrest on charges of plundering the country’s treasury, while reportedly also ailing from lung, gall bladder and heart ailments, according to his doctors. He only recovered after Arroyo pardoned him in 2007, appearing relatively hale and hearty when he ran in 2010 national elections and finished second to Benigno S. Aquino III.

“While this tactic is not entirely new and has been practiced in other parts of the world,’ PSA said in its Aug. 22 report, “the Philippines is replete with examples of how the influential are exploiting health-related excuses to circumvent justice.”

At the top of the list, according to the report, is the Ampatuan family, which has been accused of perpetrating the massacre that killed 57 people in Maguindanao on Mindanao Island in November 2009. Some 33 of them were journalists and other media workers, the worst one-day slaughter of reporters ever recorded anywhere, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists and the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders.

Andal Ampatuan Sr., his children Andal Jr. and Zaldy are currently on trial for the killing. In May, however, the elder Ampatuan asked permission to be hospitalized and treated for a swollen right leg and foot. Zaldy followed in July, saying he was suffering from coronary disease and diabetes.

The court, citing humanitarian reasons, granted the requests, which were regarded as a legal diversion, PSA reported. The arraignment and trial have been prolonged for a year and a half, “mainly because of the delaying tactics employed by the accused and their legal strategists,” the report continued.

“A number of other cases have been languishing in the courts because of apparent medical continuances,” the report continues. “Lynard Bigcas, an alleged high-end vehicle smuggler, missed congressional hearings earlier this month because he was sent to the hospital.”

Likewise, former Agriculture Secretary Joceyln Bolante, who was accused of engineering the looting of a fund established to provide fertilizer for poor farmers of P728 million (US$16.9 million). The money was allegedly used in Arroyo’s 2004 reelection campaign. Bolante arrived back in the Philippines in 2008 to be sent straight for the hospital after complaining of pulmonary disease. “The fertilizer fund scam is still unresolved,” the report notes.