, July 22, 2005
(STAR) By Aurea Calica - Malacañang is bent on pushing through with the formation of a truth commission, with or without the support of Congress, even as some administration allies thumbed down President Arroyo’s initiative.

Senate President Franklin Drilon questioned yesterday the need for such a commission, saying it might end up as an investigative panel with no real powers.

Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye and Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita defended the yet-to-be formed commission, saying it would not impede the simultaneous impeachment process as claimed by critics.

"The commission and the impeachment process are not mutually exclusive. In fact, the commission can reinforce the impeachment process," Bunye said.

"The people deserve to know the whole truth... Let us not prejudge the commission. Instead let us give it a chance to be organized and get on with its work," he said.

Bunye said the commission could even help expedite the impeachment process.

"We believe that if this is composed of credible persons then we believe this will be beneficial... What is important is to know the truth and this is in aid of finding out the truth," he said, adding that various sectors will be consulted in selecting the commission’s members.

Some bishops and even legislators allied with Malacañang have joined the opposition in questioning the significance of the proposed truth commission while an impeachment process is already underway.

Bunye and Ermita said they would work to have Congress issue a joint resolution to reinforce the panel but claimed it could function without it.

"We believe that this is something that is legal. We have had precedents as far as creating commissions is concerned and as far as the timetable is concerned, we believe we are on track," Bunye said.

Ermita said the administration would not wait for Congress to act before creating the commission.

"You know the deliberations in Congress cannot be done overnight. And it also depends on the priority of the congressmen. Is it the impeachment? Is it the hearing of the five committees (on the Gloriagate tapes)? They have a lot on their hands so it depends on which they will prioritize," he said.

Malacañang will coordinate with lawmakers on how best to go about creating the commission, presidential political adviser Gabriel Claudio said.

A joint resolution of Congress could give the commission subpoena powers and authority to grant immunity to witnesses, similar to the Davide Commission created under Administrative Order No. 146 in 1989 to investigate the coup attempts against then President Corazon Aquino.

In the meantime, the commission could invite resource persons to testify at the hearings, Ermita said.

Bunye said the administrative order creating the commission is already being drafted and would be released in a few days.

Critics called it an exercise in futility because the commission would lack the power to oust Mrs. Arroyo even if she’s found guilty.

Some suspect the commission would be a dilatory tactic meant to mollify the public and that Malacañang, despite its claims to the contrary, would like to stall the impeachment process.

A commission appointed by the Arroyo administration would suffer credibility problems, they added.

Every Move She Makes

Ermita complained that Mrs. Arroyo’s every move is being criticized. "First they asked the President to speak about the tapes and then create a truth commission to find out what really happened in the last elections. Now that she has done it, they are still not satisfied. We hope everyone would be reasonable."

Ermita said although the legality of the commission could be questioned, he hopes it would be given a chance to speed up the resolution of the political crisis.

The opposition and other sectors could suggest names of possible commission members and the panel’s hearings would be open to the public, he added.

Drilon, who has broken political ties with Mrs. Arroyo over the poll fraud allegations, doubts the commission will be of any use.

"What is the purpose of the truth commission? To seek the truth in what? Assuming it finds the truth, what will they do with it?" he said.

Florencio Abad, Mrs. Arroyo’s former education secretary, said the panel could produce "morally binding" results but it could do nothing more, such as prosecuting Mrs. Arroyo if found guilty.

Another possible problem is credibility because the panel is being formed by Malacañang, Abad and Drilon said.

Drilon doubted any measure to create the commission will be passed quickly by Congress with the impeachment process now in motion. He added the commission’s legality depends on the powers it would be granted by Congress.

For certain, Malacañang cannot count on the Roman Catholic Church to lend credibility to the commission.

Davao Archbishop Fernando Capalla, president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, said yesterday that no bishop would be allowed to join the commission as this would contradict the pastoral statement issued by the CBCP on July 10.

Capalla told CBCP secretary general Msgr. Hernando Coronel that the bishops conference could instead recommend lay Catholics "of proven integrity" to be part of the panel.

"However, whoever is chosen from our recommendees will not represent the CBCP, otherwise we would be promoting (the) truth commission as our option. Since the bishops have not chosen any single option, their willingness to recommend persons to the commission should not be taken to mean they are promoting the truth commission. We are only being consistent with our statement in urging our Catholic laity to be involved in political affairs, because that is their turf by baptism," Capalla said in a statement.

The July 10 CBCP pastoral statement had recommended a truth commission as one avenue to resolve the political crisis facing President Arroyo.

But earlier, former CBCP president and Lingayen-Dagupan Archbishop Oscar Cruz said bishops could not participate as they would be expected to render opinions on the allegations of poll fraud facing Mrs. Arroyo.

"We cannot be part of it as we will be expected to render judgment. It will not look good for the CBCP," he said.

Cruz suggested that the commission be empowered to subpoena bank documents and other records as well as invite people to testify.

He suggested the inclusion on the commission of former senator Jovito Salonga, retired Supreme Court justice Cecilia Muñoz Palma and former Presidential Commission on Good Government chairperson Haydee Yorac.

Cruz said a truth panel might not be necessary because an impeachment complaint is currently being readied against Mrs. Arroyo. "The rules of impeachment are clear. Why do we have to create a truth commission?"

Cruz said an impeachment trial and a truth commission might only duplicate the same work. He also doubts the panel will have any real power to investigate and mete out sanctions.

Sen. Miriam Defensor Santiago also warned that the creation of such a commission might be questioned before the Supreme Court.

Santiago said the premise for forming the truth commission is based on two laws in South Africa and the United States that are "immaterial (to) the present impeachment crisis."

"There is simply no legal basis for the CBCP proposal, and a mere administrative order by the President would be legally incompetent," the former trial court judge said.

Mrs. Arroyo announced in a recent letter to the CBCP that she would create a truth commission to investigate the allegations of vote-rigging against her.

According to Malacañang, an administrative order or executive order will be issued next week for the purpose of creating the commission.

Santiago pointed out that the 1995 Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act of South Africa is irrelevant to the Philippines because it concerned human rights violations during the apartheid era and had nothing to do with impeachment.

In the case of the 2004 Independent Counsel Act of the United States, Santiago noted this is applicable to impeachment but there is no counterpart statute under Philippine law.

Under US law, the independent counsel is required to advise the House of Representatives of any substantial and credible evidence that might constitute grounds for impeachment.

Senate Majority Leader Francis Pangilinan has filed an independent counsel bill and has called for its urgent passage in lieu of a truth commission.

The independent counsel would be investigative in nature and could work independently of an impeachment proceeding, he said.

However, Santiago said that even if Congress could pass the law right away, the functions of an independent counsel were already being performed by the joint House and Senate committees currently investigating the poll fraud allegations against Mrs. Arroyo and the bribery allegations against Mrs. Arroyo’s husband, eldest son and brother-in-law.

Santiago added that the creation of a truth commission would be very time-consuming and expensive because it would need to be fully staffed and its work would take at least a year to complete.

Senate Minority Leader Aquilino Pimentel Jr., a staunch critic of the President, has also said a truth commission created by Mrs. Arroyo would be objectionable. "Politically, it’s questionable because it will only prolong Gloria’s stay in Malacañang." — With Christina Mendez, Marvin Sy, Evelyn Macairan

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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