MANILA, Philippines — Looking well-rested, Lintang Bedol began to enjoy a new, albeit temporary, lease on liberty Wednesday afternoon after posting bail of P15,000 even as he told the Philippine Daily Inquirer he was willing to talk about how cheating is done in elections.
The Commission on Elections en banc approved the Maguindanao election supervisor’s petition to post bail, allowing him to defer serving a sentence of six months at the Manila City Jail and paying a P1,000 fine for the crime of indirect contempt — punishment that lawmakers had earlier assailed as “insufficient and insulting.”
Bedol told the Inquirer that if the Comelec would charge him with electoral fraud, he could shed light on the intricacies of cheating.
“It’s easy to talk about how cheating is done if you are not guilty of it,” he said in Filipino.
For example, he said, he could explain how votes were changed on official documents.
He said he wanted to talk about the ways of cheating so as to help the Comelec institute electoral reform.
In a phone interview Wednesday morning, a nonchalant Bedol said he agreed with angry lawmakers that the Comelec should have charged him with electoral fraud, and not indirect contempt.
“I can set up my defenses,” he declared.
But he was quick to say that he had neither cheated nor stolen from the government, and that he was not guilty of contempt of the poll body, where he had spent the last 11 years working as election supervisor in various provinces in Mindanao.
The latest of his assignments was Maguindanao, where a purported 12-0 sweep by the administration’s Team Unity in the midterm elections triggered allegations of widespread fraud in the province. The allegations were compounded by teachers’ claims that they were forced to fill out ballots under the gun.
Bedol got in deeper trouble when he claimed that the first copy of the Maguindanao certificates of canvass was stolen from his office weeks after the May 14 elections.
‘He knows many things’
Election lawyer Sixto Brillantes claimed Bedol knew “many things” and could link other Comelec officials to poll irregularities.
Brillantes said there was nothing wrong with Bedol’s being allowed to post bail because it was allowed by law.
But he said the P15,000 bail was a measly amount.
He added that the six-month jail term and P1,000 fine constituted the maximum penalty that the court could impose on anyone found guilty of indirect contempt.
“I was surprised that the Comelec gave him the maximum penalty because I thought he would only be reprimanded. I had said before that the Comelec cannot afford to impose a harsh punishment on Bedol because this guy can point to them. He knows so many things,” Brillantes said in a phone interview.
Bedol, 54, said he intended to fly back to Maguindanao but would stay in Manila for at least two more days.
No celebration is planned for his release, he said, but added that he would be meeting with friends in the Comelec: “I need to consult with them.”
Bedol spent Tuesday night on the couch at the air-conditioned office of the commission’s legal department.
He managed to take a shower Wednesday, and lunched on grilled chicken.
At 5 p.m., unaccompanied by his lawyer, he walked out of the legal department wearing a blue-and-white striped shirt and a wry smile.
The Comelec set no conditions for Bedol’s temporary liberty, except for an order that he heed whatever summons it may issue.
He cannot go overseas without Comelec permission, said Commissioner Rene Sarmiento.
He has five days to file a motion for reconsideration.
Walking free and carrying a small green bag, Bedol kept the wry smile on his face as he spoke with reporters on his way to the Comelec elevators.
He said a friend had provided a vehicle to collect him, but he refused to say where he was headed.
He also said he would be reporting for work, probably at the Comelec regional office headed by Rey Sumalipao. (He is on “floating status,” having been temporarily suspended by the commission as Maguindanao election supervisor.)
Crying for blood
Speaking at a press conference, Comelec Chair Benjamin Abalos Sr. decried the criticisms leveled by lawmakers at the Comelec, but said he forgave them.
“Everybody [is crying for] blood now,” he said.
Commissioner Nicodemo Ferrer Jr. said he was “quite surprised” that lawmakers had criticized the commission for giving Bedol a mere slap on the wrist.
A former Sandiganbayan justice, Ferrer said “those people in Congress” were supposed to know the law because it was they who had crafted its provisions.
Ferrer heads Task Force Maguindanao, which was formed by the Comelec to look into the alleged widespread fraud that took place in the province.
He reiterated that the task force would pursue the inquiry and focus on the commission’s own people, including Bedol, and said the Comelec was “seriously considering” filing charges of libel and electoral sabotage against “two known media personalities.”
Libel vs 2 media personalities
He did not name them, but said they were of “high ranking in the media” who were “manufactur[ing] things against the Comelec” and spreading false news and unfair comments.
“[If our reputation is being destroyed], we will have to defend ourselves,” Ferrer said.
He said filing cases against these “media personalities” was also the Comelec’s way of helping journalists “cleanse your profession.”
But Brillantes said the Comelec should be more concerned with the “integrity of the ballot” than its own.
He said it was good that the Comelec had included in its resolution convicting Bedol an order to the legal department to determine if the latter had also committed election offenses.
He added that the public should be vigilant and make sure that the Comelec did pursue this inquiry.
Electoral sabotage is a nonbailable offense that carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.
Threat to press freedom
Commenting on Ferrer’s statements, Jose Torres, chair of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, said the planned electoral sabotage case against the unnamed media persons was a case against press freedom.
“It is a threat to press freedom when government agencies start to threaten practicing journalists for being critical of policies. The threat alone is itself not limited to the concerned journalists, but involves press freedom,” Torres told the Inquirer.
He added: “The Comelec should not blame the media for its failure during the elections, as proven by the Bedol and ‘Garci’ controversies. The media are only reporting what happened during the elections.”
Torres also said the public perception of the lack of credibility of the elections was real: “This has been going on for a long time, as evidenced by the cases filed by various political groups.” With a report from Alcuin Papa in Manila