EDITORIAL CARTOON: Stress, squeeze play and the anti-graft court

MANILA, Philippines - It has convicted an ousted president. It is hearing various charges hurled against another former president. And now it is about to put on trial 3 senators and God knows how many other Philippine lawmakers.

All eyes are on the undermanned, ill-equipped and overworked Sandiganbayan, the Philippines' anti-graft court that was created to punish crooks in government and instill fear in those who want to follow in their footsteps. Over the years, however, the court has had to deal with accusations that it is packed with crooks as well.

Some would think these accusations are unfair. After all, this is a court that made history by convicting a former Philippine president of plunder. In September 2007, after a marathon 6-year trial, the Sandiganbayan convicted former President Joseph Estrada of plunder, sentenced him to life in prison and barred him from seeking public office. Yet, more than a month after the verdict, Estrada was granted presidential pardon by then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who herself is now detained and facing plunder charges before the anti-graft court.

Simeon Marcelo, the Ombudsman who prosecuted Estrada, noted that in the past it took an average of 6.6 years for the Sandiganbayan to complete a case – from the filing of charges to the release of a verdict.

But today, he said, the situation has worsened. By Marcelo's own estimates, it now takes takes an average of 10.2 years to process cases against government officials.

The bottleneck in the country's fight against corruption, Marcelo asserted, is the Sandiganbayan itself. (READ: Get to know the anti-graft court Sandiganbayan)

It doesn't help that the court is hounded by controversial verdicts that have exposed deep-seated disagreements among justices. The latest of these is the court's decision to dismiss graft charges against former Marcos regime crony Roberto Ongpin in connection with loans from the state-run Development Bank of the Philippines. Two justices dissented, saying the majority ruling erred in law and procedure.

In the biggest military corruption case it has handled, the Sandiganbayan - in undue haste, critics say – approved a plea bargain deal with former military comptroller Carlos Garcia, who was accused of pocketing millions of soldiers' funds through a system in the armed forces called conversion. (READ: General Garcia: How the big fish got away)

And its most senior justice, Gregory Ong, is himself mired in the pork barrel scandal due to his association with the alleged mastermind, Janet Lim Napoles. He is the subject of a Supreme Court investigation as a result of those links.

At the helm of the anti-graft court is a lady justice, Amparo Cabotaje-Tang, who bested more senior justices in the screening for the top position. Her appointment barely a year ago did not sit well with some of his colleagues in the court, and it is an understatement to say that the plunder cases would be a litmus test for her.

Unfortunately, the court's problems – and the external pressures brought upon it – are too big and complex to be addressed by one presiding justice. - Rappler.com