Alberto Agra hitched his star to the wagon of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who would reward him with the twin posts of solicitor general and justice secretary. After he threw out the case against two leaders of the Ampatuan clan for their alleged roles in the Maguindanao massacre, the government’s top barrister is now the Prime Suspect.
BEFORE a group of employees at a national penitentiary, Justice Secretary Alberto Agra‘s voice cracked as he was about to deliver his speech last April. The soft-spoken lawyer paused and adjusted his eyeglasses before the tears fell.
“I am sorry, and I’m on the verge of crying,” Agra was quoted as saying. “Pinalaki kasi ako ng aking ama na iyakin, kaya’t ako ay nagiging totoo lang sa sarili. (My father brought me up as a cry-baby so I’m just being true to myself.)”
This melodramatic performance followed his decision to drop the names of Zaldy Ampatuan, a former governor of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao, and his brother-in-law Akhmad, from the list of the accused in the planning and staging of the Maguindanao massacre. The move, which triggered massive outrage and withering attacks from civil society, has seen by many as an order from President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, whose victory in the 2004 polls was ensured alleged with the help of the Ampatuans .
Since the Department of Justice (DOJ) order, several government prosecutors have defied Agra’s order and begun wearing black ribbons to mourn the death of justice in the country. Protests also hounded the DOJ office in Manila, and were held as far away as Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where overseas Filipino workers gathered. All this, plus a disbarment case filed by relatives of the massacre victims.
But 10 days before coming out with his controversial decision, Agra sat down with Asian Dragon and revealed a more self-assured side. While he is now being portrayed as a stooge for Arroyo, the Agra we met was confident that his decision would be backed up not by the President, but by the law.
“If I decide on one side, and if it’s unpopular, the perception would be that you were bought, you were following orders, or you are stupid,” he said in an April 8 interview.
At 47, Agra is the youngest ever to hold the justice portfolio. The 17-year Ateneo law school professor replaced Agnes Devanadera, another Arroyo political ally who was running for congress, a month earlier. He replaced her in two previous posts at the Office of the Solicitor General (OSG) and as Government Corporate Counsel, handling legal cases of the 600 government-owned and -controlled corporations.
In his simple yet cozy space at the OSG, Agra had a sweeping vista of Makati’s skyline and slums. Also in view were pictures of his daughter Jessica Marie, 18, son Noel Antonio, 17, wife Evangeline, and two-year-old Chow Chow Jerrie, hung on the adjacent wall. His family has reportedly left the country to spare them from the controversy.
“Our dog just gave birth to five puppies,” Agra proudly said. “One is called Secretary, the rest are SolGen, Justice, Attorney, and GCC — all the posts I’ve held.”
Agra insisted he was not a “Yes Ma’am.” But as solicitor general, the executive branch’s statutory counsel, he is the President’s top lawyer in the government. Agra has represented Arroyo in election-related cases, such as the “Hello, Garci” controversy of 2004, and again in 2006, during impeachment proceedings against the President in the House of Representatives.
“The President trusts me,” Agra confidently said. But when asked how far he was willing to go to defend the President, Agra reiterated that he was merely out to defend the law. “The President hasn’t asked me to do her any favors,” he said. “I don’t think she has ever asked anyone.”
Before being Arroyo’s election lawyer, Agra had co-founded Saligan, a charitable law firm to help “women, workers, farmers and fishers, the urban poor, and local communities. One of my advocacies is that lawyers should not have monopoly of the law. I wanted to popularize the law,” he said.
When he accepted the DOJ post, he inherited 10,000 cases that have piled up with the office since 1997. If his time management skills prevail, Agra said he hopes to resolve half of them before the President steps down from office in June 30 and get rid of his office’s reputation as the “Department of Injustice.”
But with a string of high-profile cases that need to be resolved, including the Ampatuan massacre, the Rose Barrameda murder case, the Morong 43 case, and Hayden Kho scandal, among others, Agra admitted that he was bound to attract more controversy. “Some might not share my opinions, but at the end of the day, the Supreme Court will decide.”
Despite accusations that he has been caught cheating and was reprimanded in law school back in 1988, Agra has been teaching Constitutional Law Review, Administrative Law, Law on Public Corporations, Law on Local Governments, Election Law, and Law on Public Officers for almost two decades.
As a professor, Agra said he liked to begin his discussions in class with current events. It takes him an hour to prepare for his lectures at the Ateneo, since he likes to cut out news stories from broadsheets. “I tell them, ‘Identify the legal issue, then you resolve,’” he said.
This teaching style has been quite effective for some of his law students, as one sophomore Ateneo law student told Asian Dragon via e-mail. “His questions during recitations were fair yet challenging, and you will really feel his desire to impart his knowledge to students. I think he enjoys seeing his students grow through the course,” she said.
While her professor is calmly facing the controversies hounding him, the student said taking the DOJ post was a bad move. “Being a man who decides based only on the law and facts presented to him, he will be greatly criticized for unpopular decisions. Maybe he was just doing his job. Unfortunately, now he has become public enemy no.1,” he said. – Joseph Holandes Ubalde, Asian Dragon