“Saying goodbye doesn’t mean anything. It’s the time we spent together that matters, not how we left it.” – Trey Parker
NEW YORK CITY – The late Judge Rita Bascos-Sarabia was a councilor in Iloilo City in the Philippines when she and another city councilor, former City Prosecutor Jose Junio Jacela, volunteered to defend me in court, pro bono, against the libel cases filed by a group of politicians in 1999, or about 20 years ago.
They approached me like true Christians offering their sincere legal services.
I didn’t have any prior acquaintances with both city officials aside from listening to them debate with fellow city councilors in their regular sessions at the Sangguniang Panlungsod every Wednesday afternoon as a city hall beat reporter.
But Judge Rita and Fiscal Jacela were some of the many Ilonggos who believed in me; they were at the frontline doing their darn best to ensure that an innocent journalist wouldn’t spend a minute in jail.
Prior to the sensational litigation, they were among those who regularly read the columns and the news I wrote in Sun Star Iloilo daily; they were convinced of my absolute innocence.
They sacrificed precious hours and resources, and collaborated like clinical surgeons saving the life of a terminally ill patient.
I watched in awe while listening to these topnotch lawyers convince the court of my innocence as an accused in at least 38 counts of libel, a bundle of criminal cases “too good to be true” owing to its abundance (I will write a separate story about this).
One time, I felt guilty while watching Judge Rita undergo arrest proceedings inside the Hall of Justice after a trial judge in another branch meted her with a “contempt of court” and ordered her arrest for missing another hearing not related to my cases.
Because of the large number of cases Judge Rita was handling in the morning, sometimes we had to hop from one branch to another like airport passengers scrambling to locate the boarding gates in the eleventh hour.
Judge Rita and Prosecutor Jacela were so determined to win our cases that they never showed signs of weariness and boredom as the hearings prolonged, prompting some court personnel to refer to them as the “Wonder Woman” and the “Bionic Man.”
Before the Bionic Man became a city legal officer under the administration of Mayor Jed Patrick Mabilog and before the Wonder Woman was assigned in Makati City, all the libel cases filed against me, my late former publisher Marcos “Mark” Villalon, and columnist Wenceslao “Mat” Mateo, Jr. have been dismissed.
Judge Rita did something special that will forever be etched on my memory.
Sometime in June 2001, or several weeks after the May 14, 2001 elections, newly-elected Iloilo Vice Governor Roberto “Obet” Armada passed by the coffee shop of Iloilo City’s Amigo Terrace Hotel and saw me together with now Prosecutor Carol Salvatierra and now Public Attorney Office (PAO) lawyer Gerlie Uy while we were having an editorial meeting for our Iloilo Today publication.
We congratulated the smiling Vice Governor Armada, after which he immediately told me: “Ti, join ka na sa akon office. Kinahanglan ko ang writer (Come and join in my office now. I need a writer).”
I didn’t believe the vice governor was serious about the invitation when I nicely declined his offer right in that moment until Judge Rita entered the picture several days later.
Judge Rita, then a city councilor and coming out from her City Hall office on her way to Vice Governor Armada’s office in the Capitol, “kidnapped” me while I was gathering stories in the City Hall.
To make the long story short, we ended up inside the vice governor’s office where I was “formally” introduced to all and sundry as Vice Governor Armada’s new “staff member.”
I realized that Mrs. Ana “Ting Ting” Abogado-Armada, the vice governor’s wife, was Judge Rita’s cousin.
I learned furthermore that both Vice Governor Armada and Judge Rita have been my avid readers; and they both believed in me.
I never failed them, I was confident.
I will miss you, Judge Rita Bascos-Sarabia, my great lawyer and my “Wonder Woman,” our “Wonder Woman”. Thank you for believing in me.
You left us too early, but I know that we shall meet again in God’s time and kingdom.
(Judge Rita Bascos-Sarabia succumbed in a hospital in Metro Manila past 9 o’clock evening on Dec. 26, 2018 from complications from an infection of her exposed wounds caused by explosion from a gas leak in an LPG tank. She is survived by her husband, Atty. Rene, and children, Katherine, Ina and Rex. Her wake is at the Gegato-Abecia Funeral Services in Coastal Road, Iloilo City. Viewing starts on December 29, 2018. She will be buried on January 6, 2019.)