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I Beg Your Pardon?

St. Francis of Assisi wrote a peace prayer in the early 1900’s that is now simply called “The Prayer of St. Francis. It has become very popular even among other religious faiths because of its simplicity and relevance. The prayer’s opening line pleads for self-sacrifice. “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.”

I was reminded of this prayer when I’ve read VP Leni Robredo’s criticisms of President Rodrigo Duterte’s pardon of convicted killer, US Marine Lance Cpl. Joseph Scott Pemberton. Pemberton was convicted of killing transgender woman Jennifer Laude in Olongapo some six years ago and has yet to complete his 10-year sentence. But the impetus for the pardon came when the Olongapo City Regional Trial Court released Pemberton for good behavior and after having settled the civil suit component of his crime.

VP Robredo asked out aloud whether Duterte’s full pardon was a “fair and just decision.” At first glance, Robredo could have been questioning the judge’s decision but her statements left no doubt of her target. “We continue to hope that the President exercises his vast powers in a manner that is fair and that benefits the common Filipino,” Robredo said.

While Robredo’s comments follow her normal DNA on matters delving on human rights but given that the next presidential election is just a couple of years away, we have to look at the political angle of this. Her criticisms of the administration’s handling of the pandemic is not making any traction so Pemberton’s pardon serves as a new dish to munch on. In other words, getting extra mileage from the publicity.

Clearly, Robredo is playing with the family’s emotions and that of other victims of heinous crimes. She’s a lawyer so she should know that Duterte’s exercise of the president’s pardon in this case is absolute. The president doesn’t have to give a reason for his action because the Constitution clothes him with such awesome power.

What Robredo is actually saying is that when she becomes president, that she will make sure her use of the pardon power will be fair and just, UNLIKE what Duterte just did. It is clever but bereft of strategic importance or significance. It is shortsighted and exposes her lack of understanding or grasp of the bigger picture.

As an avowed Catholic, Robredo’s comments run afoul with St. Francis’ prayer. To be an instrument of peace, St. Francis meant that one should not add fuel to the fire especially knowing that her comments would further inflame those who were already going through the healing process. What purpose will it serve other than giving Robredo another microphone to play on people’s emotions?

When President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo pardoned the killers of former senator Benigno “Ninoy,” the son, then senator Benigno Aquino III said, “We can’t do anything about it because it’s the absolute power of the president.” Now, that’s class act and follows the other lines of that prayer, “Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there’s injury, pardon.” But, let’s look at more substantive stuff.

President Duterte’s granting of full pardon to Pemberton raised eyebrows and caught people by surprise. Duterte alluded to the judge’s ruling and the ruckus it created and the pardon was more to preempt a lengthy appeal for reconsideration. By giving the full pardon, Duterte in effect, mooted the appeals. Of course, we will never know the real reason or reasons why he did such a humanitarian act but we can speculate based on current events.

One possible scenario is a quid pro quo situation involving the U.S. Embassy’s earlier decision to reconsider giving Sen. Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa a tourist visa to the United States after it was earlier revoked that prompted Duterte to issue a notice of terminating the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA). The timing is perfect as it added to the American ambassador’s (Sung Kim) accomplishment before his departure for his next assignment. The gesture could have been a signal too about or to highlight the unfairness of the VFA that allows such special treatment.

Another possibility is that because of the pandemic, Duterte did not want to have to answer for Pemberton in case he contracts the disease and dies in the process. Although Pemberton was not in a regular jail, many policemen/soldiers were popping positive for the virus and could expose him to the disease. Being incarcerated is a risk factor that has already claimed the lives of several high and not so high value inmates.

If the former U.S. Marine dies in Philippine custody due to covid, it could further complicate an already complicated situation in the United States’ election campaign where Donald Trump is besieged with negative news involving his unsavory view of the military. Presidential spokesman Harry Roque Jr.’s opinion that Duterte’s decision could have been anchored on the belief that the United States will soon come up with a coronavirus vaccine, and the pardon is a way to grease the wheel. This is certainly possible but not credible because China is already on its third phase trial for two vaccines and could surprise the world with developing the first safe vaccine.

But the more plausible explanation is something strategic and involves diplomatic maneuvering. President Donald Trump is going after China on multiple fronts as part of its election campaign strategy. One of them is the South China Sea situation where the Trump administration is ramping up the pressure against China, primarily to look tough in the eyes of the electorate, by applying severe sanctions to the China-owned companies and private construction companies involved in the building of the illegal artificial structures on the disputed islands.

Such sanctions run counter with Duterte’s pronouncement that the Philippines will not honor such action. China has been helping the Duterte administration with its “Build, build, build” infra program and will not take it kindly if Duterte is swayed into blacklisting these companies. China has also been helping the Philippines deal with the pandemic by sending experts and testing kits and personal protective equipment. If China develops the much coveted vaccine first, now Duterte has good reasons to appease the man.

The timely Pemberton pardon then becomes a wise diplomatic move that shoots (no pun intended) two birds with one smooth stroke. When the U.S. sanctions a country or entity, it expects other countries to honor it to avoid being dragged into it. So Pemberton’s release is telling Trump to remember why Pemberton was in the Philippines in the first place. He wasn’t there on a diving trip to El Nido as a tourist. He was there as part of a U.S. military contingent participating in a military exercise but got snagged because of the current VFA.

Pemberton’s case therefore becomes a simple but legal tool in diplomacy that benefits both sides. This is something that perhaps VP Robredo can learn from when executing an independent foreign policy. More importantly, the Pemberton case serves as a talking point once again that exposes the disproportional value of the VFA to the Filipinos.

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