Carlo's Think Pieces

Reflections of a Filipino in the Netherlands

Don’t Imprison Ex-Presidents

Posted by butalidnl on 1 November 2011

Many people advocate putting former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo on trial, in the hope of imprisoning her for misdeeds. They say that a president, who holds ultimate power, also has ultimate responsibility and needs to be punished the most if they abuse this power.

They have a point. But, I disagree with their course of action. Imprisoning an ex-president is not a good idea. Imprisoning Erap was a big mistake, and it’s too bad that we haven’t learned our lesson.

Political Reckoning
The biggest reason for not imprisoning ex-presidents is that it gives the impression of it being a political reckoning by the current president. The recent trial and jail sentence of Julia Timoshenko of Ukraine illustrates the point. She was convicted on a flimsy charge of signing an oil deal disadvantageous to the country, and now has to stay 7 years in jail for it. This verdict has damaged Ukraine’s relations both with the West and Russia.

Coup leaders in all kinds of third world countries routinely throw their predecessors in jail. While these civilian ex-presidents may have been quite guilty of corruption; they nevertheless had been singled out for prison, while other corrupt officials remain in office.

In the case of Thailand, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinuatra was deposed by a military coup. And then he was charged with corruption to effectively keep him from returning to the country. As a result, Thailand had troubles with Thaksin supporters (the ‘red shirts’) who alternatively held massive demonstrations and defeated military-backed parties during elections. Now, we have Thaksin’s sister (Yingluck Shinuatra) as the new Prime Minister.

The imprisonment of Joseph Estrada was also, in a way, a political reckoning. The ‘revolutionaries’ (led by Makati Business Club types) of EDSA 2 had to convict him of corruption in order to justify having overthrown him. While  Estrada was certainly quite guilty of corruption;  he had been singled out for conviction, and that was still a political reckoning. Estrada was eventually pardoned by Arroyo, but only after Arroyo had been elected for another presidential term. Whatever we may think of Erap Estrada, enough people felt that he was deposed and imprisoned unjustly, and that he deserved to continue his term as president. In protest, these people voted for Fernando Poe Jr (a close friend of Estrada) for president in 2004, and gave Estrada get the second highest number of votes in the 2010 elections.

Base of Support
Every former president has a base of electoral support. These people will react (sometimes, quite violently) to the imprisonment of ‘their’ president. In the case of Estrada, we saw this in the large mobilizations for ‘EDSA III’ and the electoral support during 2009 elections.

The peaceful transfer of power from one president to the next is not helped by the prospect of the new president imprisoning the old one. Not only may it lead them to stay in power longer (perhaps by extra-constitutional means), the president could also appoint people to key positions (e.g. Ombudsman Guttierez) to prevent this from happening. A president appoints a lot of officials during his/her term, and some have terms that last way into the term of his/her successor. These people could cause trouble for the new president if the previous one is imprisoned.

Dictators are an exception to the principle of not imprisoning presidents. By definition, dictators don’t hold fair elections anyway. They usually appoint close family members to head the security services (General Ver was a relative of Marcos). Dictators are notorious for imprisoning or killing a lot of their opponents.

When dictators are overthrown in a revolution, the change is so abrupt, so radical. All the appointees are thrown out together with the dictator. There is no constitutional continuity to preserve, since the dictator had so mangled the constitution that the new government has to draft a new one.

Corrupt presidents are one thing, while cruel dictators – with a lot of blood on their hands – are another. While I advocate NOT imprisoning corrupt ex-presidents; dictators need to be tried in court if possible, in order to fully expose their acts, and so steps could be taken to prevent them happening again. Then they should be thrown in jail, if found guilty.

What to do now?
But if we don’t imprison an ex-president, or his/her family, when they are corrupt, does this mean they have special treatment? Will they go unpunished? Isn’t this impunity?

Not really. In a case of a corrupt ex-president, the best option may still be to subject him/her to a fair trial. If found guilty, he/she should be sentenced to both a prison term and a fine (equivalent to the money stolen). And then, the prison term should be suspended.

This way, the ex-president’s loot is returned to the country, and he/she is barred from returning to office indefinitely. The electoral base will be bothered, even unhappy; but they will accept the court verdict. As for the corrupt relatives, they should be given the maximum prison sentence if found guilty. This is also, indirectly, a punishment for the ex-president.


5 Responses to “Don’t Imprison Ex-Presidents”

  1. Nice suggestions. However how do you guarantee a fair trail with loads of officials appointed by that president? Furthermore, to be fair, the sentence given by the independent court is not to be disputed. If the law states imprisonment for an offence, you have to go. There should be made a law then telling that a former official can not be imprisoned if it is clear that her/his doings where nothing more than a maybe strange interpretation of the same laws. The president is the head of state (for a while) and ultimate responsible for the content of the law. Damage done should be valuated and repaid. Prisons are intended to be correction institutes and maybe not the best place to correct the damage done by officials.

  2. […] See original here: Don't Imprison Ex-Presidents « Carlo's Think Pieces […]

  3. gerry said

    nice suggestion but i hope we can explore more on the effect of this on the way our leaders will lead the country knowing that they are not going to jail after their terms in office- in case cases will be filed after them and let’s say they’ll be proven guilty; they’ll just have to return the money. for affluent people money is not a problem but going to jail is another thing. and therefore if i were the president i wont be afraid to milk the country’s fund- i’ll just have to do it discretely so not to be exposed, anyway, if i’ll be exposed then i can just return the money assured of not going behind bars- but that is yet to be proven.

    i think the countries you’ve mentioned suffered all the same fate due to the new leader’s lack of credibility to lead. a true leader needs credibility so to have devoted followers. they’ll have opposition for sure but if the opposition sees the integrity and sincerity of the new administration then they’ll start to think twice.

    • butalidnl said

      under my proposal, the ex-president, if convicted will have a suspended jail sentence. this is not nothing. with that, they will not be allowed to run for office, they will not be able to loan money for their business, etc. Imprisoning them first, then pardoning erases these problems, but not if you just have a suspended sentence.
      another reason why corruption for a president is not painless, is that their close family members (who will inevitably involved in corruption) WILL be imprisoned for long terms. So, for example, in the case of GMA, Mike and Mikey Arroyo may be imprisoned – with that, I don’t think GMA will think then that corruption for her is painless. I think this will traumatic enough to dissuade future presidents from committing the same crimes.

      • gerry said

        yeah i see your point but generally i just couldn’t be convinced enough why we have to excuse our top leaders from going behind bars for certain reasons 1. they are also under our rule of law- that if we claim equality at least in that we are all equal ( no special treatment ideally). when ordinary people are accused of stealing hundreds of pesos they are almost pushed to stay behind bars and that is no question because they committed a crime- i hope we can also do the same towards violators of greater crimes involving a lot of victims and in this case we are talking of a country>>>> a country! besides these accusations are yet to be proven. 2. they cant run for office- they don’t necessarily need that. 3. they cant have loans, they have saved enough….. 4. if we can jail the accomplice of the crime in this case the relatives so to speak why not include the boss who has all the power to stop and could have avoided the crime through the powers entrusted to him/her.

        Full betrayal of the powers entrusted to the leader i guess merits something. it is in this that we can be assured responsibility exercised responsibly by those who are entrusted.

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