FIRING LINE: A gift of grace

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By Robert B. Roque, Jr.

It’s peculiar how bilateral relations with a world superpower such as the United States – which ride on high-stakes issues as the economy, investments, mutual security and defense, immigration, aid, and now global health – can suddenly change over a bar pick-up that ends in a motel homicide.

Six years ago, that was exactly the impact on Philippines-US relations of finding Olongapo-born transgender woman Jennifer Laude dead, slumped forward and face down in a toilet bowl, because the author of the crime was a US Marine – Lance Corporal Joseph Scott Pemberton.

Anti-US sentiments were inflamed in a nation that has hosted America’s greatest wars and display of might and influence in Asia. So, Pemberton’s headline-grabbing arrest, trial, conviction, and incarceration needed to be squeezed for its every drop of drama. Eventually, justice tied up loose ends, and both countries moved on from the Pemberton-Laude affair.

But wait… that’s what we thought until President Duterte granted absolute pardon to Pemberton last September 7.  Yes, the same Mr. President who had promised the mother of the victim, Mrs. Julita Laude, three years ago that the killer would not go free in his presidency – a term that ends in 2022.

Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said that the President’s action was an act of grace. And very much unlike his feisty self when he was part of the Laude legal team, Presidential Spokesman Harry Roque tried to rationalize the executive action as a diplomatic means for the country to be given priority by the US when it develops a COVID-19 vaccine.

As for presidential grace, Guevarra’s correct in saying that it’s a constitutionally-enshrined prerogative of the Chief Executive. What’s more is that the Good Conduct Time Allowance (GCTA) law entitled Pemberton to it, and the court agrees.

But what timing for Duterte to use his rare-as-genie-in-a-bottle wishes, eh!? If you think about it – just a year ago, he axed officials of the Bureau of Corrections and clipped it of its generous exercise of GCTA powers that set a flock of jailbirds free. Now, he’s displaying the kind of grace that would make angels sing.

Well, at least the church is not complaining this time. Still, he sure has given militants and critics fresh ammo to shout in the streets and accuse him of riding roughshod over judicial independence and Filipino sentiments.

As for me, I don’t buy the grace-for-vaccine idea.

One thing “Floppy Bird” has been telling me, though, is that there are two factions in the highest chamber of government – one, pro-US, and the other, pro-China. Duterte, of late, has been giving too much favor to his pro-China faction of the Cabinet. It was but high time and most kingly to offer the other side a gift of grace.

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