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The NBN-ZTE Abalos Acquittal: An Opportunity for Duterte to Prove His Mettle to Filipinos

A cast of colorful characters. Top, left to right: Joey de Venecia, Benjamin Abalos, Sr., and Jun Lozada Bottom, left to right: Mike Arroyo, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, and Catholic nuns escorting Lozada
A cast of colorful characters. Top, left to right: Joey de Venecia, Benjamin Abalos, Sr., and Jun Lozada. Bottom, left to right: Mike Arroyo, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, and Catholic nuns escorting Lozada.

ow can anyone forget the 2007 NBN-ZTE scandal. Where an ill-advised, grossly overpriced broadband network with limited capability was almost rammed down the throats of hapless Filipinos by the Arroyo administration. A foolhardy endeavor that would have cost Filipino taxpayers US$329 million. For weeks, Filipinos everywhere were glued to their television sets as the saga unfolded through hearings in the Philippine Senate.

Who can forget whistleblower Jun Lozada's Senate testimony replete with moments of melodrama and anguish. Or Joey de Venecia's re-enactment of then First Gentleman Mike Arroyo ordering him to "back off." And who can forget the former NEDA Secretary Romulo Neri referring to then President Gloria Arroyo as "evil." Last but not least, how can anyone ever forget the cordon of Catholic Sisters who surrounded Lozada wherever he went, to protect him from those wanting to do him harm. It was high drama with larger-than-life characters woven into a garish tapestry Pinoys called the NBN-ZTE scandal/telenovela.

And in light of China's current aggressive stance towards the Philippines, the country dodged a big and deadly bullet by scuttling the NBN-ZTE deal. No Filipino in his right mind today would want a government-wide broadband network installed and maintained by the Chinese. It would have given them access to all secure communications between Philippine government agencies. It seems that selling the country to the Chinese was the hallmark of the Arroyo administration, whose critics claim, had no qualms about doing so, as long as there was something in it for her. First there was the very secret Joint Maritime Seismic Undertaking (JMSU) in 2005, then the NBN-ZTE deal in 2007.

Nine years after the scandal broke, despite evidence to the contrary, the Sandiganbayan just recently chose to acquit Abalos, of graft charges because the prosecution failed to prove their case "beyond reasonable doubt." Abalos was accused of offering Neri a PhP200-million bribe if he signed-off on the project.

So now we have a clear picture of how Philippine jurisprudence actually works. It takes years for a case to wind its way through the country's legal system. But instead of using that time to build an air-tight case, it is alleged that government prosecutors instead use the time to work out deals, then water-down their prosecution so that the government either loses the case, or it gets thrown out by the courts.

Everything appears to be on the up-and-up, with strict adherence to the rules of law. But anyone, who bothers to look more closely will immediately see that a sham legal proceeding has taken place.

So if this is how Filipino thieves and scammers operate, what does President-elect Rodrigo Duterte plan on doing about it? Will he simply accept it as the way things are done in the Philippines? Or will he put his foot down—as he promised the voters time and again during the campaign—and stop this travesty of justice.

He and the Department of Justice have the authority to re-open the case or file an appeal. The NBN-ZTE deal is unique because the allegations of corruption reach all the way to the very top, implicating a former president and her husband.

If anything, this case should be seen as a litmus test for the new Duterte Administration. Will he limit himself to being the dreaded "punisher" of petty criminals and small-time crooks? Or will he have the "guts" to go after the high and the mighty—the ones who do the most damage yet remain untouchable and above the law? Published 5/16/2016

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