April 23, 2009

The Failon syndrome

In this country, the name Failon has instantly become associated with police brutality and abuse of authority. The untimely death of Trinidad Etong, the wife of popular radio and television news anchor Ted Failon, likely by her own hand, has resulted in a series of tragic events for her family. What would otherwise be a personal cross to bear for Mr. Failon and his children has become a highly publicized spectacle of the police venting their ire and their incompetence on the hapless members of Mr. Failon’s household, including his wife’s siblings, who just happened to be there.

This is not just a case of police overzealousness, nor of police brutality. All the elements that should have stayed the hand of the police were present. At the outset the case was an apparent suicide attempt; the commission of a felony was not self-evident although it could not be ruled out. Mr. Failon is a high- profile media personality, a former Congressman, a man of some means and with connections in high places, as high up as Vice President Noli de Castro, who rushed to Mr. Failon’s side after the incident.

Prudence and judiciousness were clearly the way to go for any responsible police investigator but the police authorities did the exact opposite.

Very early on the investigators drew the conclusion that they were dealing with a parricide case; i.e. Mr. Failon had attempted to kill his wife. Even while Ms. Etong was fighting for her life in the hospital, the police were engaged, not in investigating the circumstances of the shooting, but in building up a case against her husband.

They were quick to speculate that the wife had been shot in Mr. Failon’s car and then transferred to the bathroom. This despite the testimony of all the household help, Ms. Etong’s sister and Mr. Failon that they found her in the bathroom bathed in a pool of her own blood, with a gun at her side, and that she was subsequently rushed by Mr. Failon to the hospital in his car.

The police initially stated that there was no evidence of the spent bullet ricocheting in the bathroom (they later found it); that the husband had scratches on his back indicating that the “victim” had fought off her “assailant” (there were none); and that there were solid indications of an attempted cover-up by cleaning the scene of the crime, both the bloodied bathroom and the vehicle.

The “law enforcers” were uncharacteristically swift in hauling off Mr. Failon for questioning; they took forever to process his sworn statement; and it was only through the intervention of the Chief of the Public Attorney’s Office that he was temporarily released. Whereupon police officials peremptorily declared that he was the object of a manhunt for illegally removing himself from their custody.

They manhandled, summarily arrested and arbitrarily detained Mr. Failon’s house help, driver, and in-laws on the groundless charge of “obstruction of justice” when they had not even established if a crime had been committed.

Their brash and excessive actions indicate confidence that they had the approval, if not the direct orders of “higher ups” in the Philippine National Police (PNP) and perhaps even in the higher reaches of government.

The immediate and unwavering support for the police by the Justice Secretary compared to the slow response to complaints of police abuse by those directly supervising the PNP, strongly suggest that powerful quarters are at work here. They have an axe to grind against Mr. Failon. Perhaps they want to put an end to his hard-hitting commentaries against the Arroyo regime, erring public officials and their criminal cohorts. Could it be that they are out to cut Mr. Failon and other critical media practitioners like him down to size?

So much so that police brutality and highhandedness, extensively covered by the mass media, were allowed to go on unimpeded for several days after the incident. This was only stopped by overwhelming public sympathy for Mr. Failon, his family and household members and almost universal condemnation of the actuations of the police. For if the police could do this to Mr. Failon, how much more ordinary citizens without the means, the connection, and the clout with the media? What about those who have consistently been in their crosshairs like activists, critics of government and others in opposition to it.

The Arroyo government has been forced to suspend six of the police officers involved and to shift the investigation from the police to the National Bureau of Investigation, an agency under the control of the notoriously biased Justice Secretary. It is clearly in damage control mode. The incident will be dismissed as an isolated case. A few will be “punished” and thereafter investigation into their culpabilities and liabilities will be conveniently forgotten. Involved higher-ups and the system that breeds these kinds of abuse will be firewalled.

It remains to be seen whether the victims will find the steps taken by government to redress their grievances satisfactory. Otherwise they risk being dismissed as unreasonable, incorrigible critics or even allowing themselves to be used by Mrs. Arroyo’s political enemies what with the upcoming 2010 presidential elections.

Unfortunately, if the underlying reasons for such an incident are not probed and exposed and if the government is allowed once more to sweep this atrocity under the rug, impunity for such crimes, by those in authority, will again reign supreme.

The message still for many is that one must not “run afoul of the law” meaning, do not criticize much less oppose government authorities, from the policeman on the beat to the untouchables in and around Malacañang. In this country, crime does pay especially if you have the power and the means to crush your opponents including paying off the police, the military and corrupt fiscals and judges to do your bidding. #


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