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MANILA, Philippines -- (UPDATED - 5 p.m.) Senator Juan Miguel Zubiri on Wednesday resigned as senator while maintaining his innocence over alleged irregularities in the 2007 elections that led to his proclamation.
Elections Chairman Sixto Brilantes, who at one time lawyered for Zubiri's political rival, Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel III, said Zubiri’s move means he was asking the Senate Electoral Tribunal to act immediately on Pimentel's electoral protest challenging Zubiri for his seat. Pimentel insists that irregularities in the 2007 elections cheated him out of the final Senate post which was proclaimed won by Zubiri.
But since this is the first time that a sitting senator has resigned from his post, legal experts would have to study the matter, Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile said. The session was suspended right after Zubiri's speech, and senators went to a closed-door caucus to discuss the implications of the resignation.
But former elections commissioner Gregorio Larrazabal has a different view and said a special election might have to be called for the vacancy that Zubiri's resignation created. "By resigning, this effectively ends the protest case pending at the SET. You can't replace a person who no longer occupies the seat you intend to occupy. To fill the vacancy, a special elections for the vacant position is what is required," he said.
In a privilege speech delivered shortly after 3 p.m., Zubiri said his decision didn't come easy but he did it for his family and his family’s honor after "the trial publicity has begun."
"In this august chamber, without admitting any fault and with my vehement denial of the alleged electoral fraud hurled against me, I am submitting my resignation as a duly elected Senator of the Republic of the Philippines in the election for which I am falsely accused without mercy and compassion," Zubiri said.
"Today I rise in this august chamber for my family's honor," Zubiri said, "Mahal ko ang aking tungkulin bilang senador...pero lubha na akong nasaktan kasama ang sakit at hapding nadarama ng aking pamilya (I love my job as senator…but I am extremely hurt by the pain and sting that my family feels about this)...I would be doing an injustice to my fellow men if I continued working half-heartedly...In this august chamber without admitting any fault...I am submitting my resignation as a duly elected senator."
He said his family had been very affected by allegations he benefited from massive poll cheating in 2007.
"I could feel how my wife has had sleepless nights," Zubiri said. "Every time I see my wife, my siblings and parents being affected, I am affected."
“My father, my mother who has undergone two major brain operations and is constantly suffering physically and emotionally, together with my siblings, have been hurt and affected by such unfounded and baseless accusations,” he said.
He said that while he was prepared to face any decision of the Senate Electoral Tribunal, the trial by publicity which appeared “orchestrated” by “highly suspect personalities” who did not have any documents “practically set aside” the SET processes.
And because of the taint that all this was giving his name and honor, he was resigning. He said no amount of power, position, and wealth was worth sacrificing one’s honor and integrity.
After his resignation, Zubiri said he had no regrets about his decision. "I feel liberated with my decision. I'm doing this for integrity,” he said.
Zubiri went out of the Senate's session hall shortly after 4 p.m. along with his wife Audrey.
Enrile, whom Zubiri said was like "a father" to him, lauded the senator's action but said he would not rush into letting him go.
"I will study your resignation and make a decision in due time. We are not going to do this rushly… This is the first time in my 87 years in this planet that a member of this chamber...says bayan muna bago sarili (country first before self). I commend you," he added.
"He is one among the best...in my memory. I'm sad that we are going to lose him," Enrile said.
Zubiri's wife Audrey and brother Bukidnon Rep. Jose Zubiri III were present during the privilege speech. Seventeen senators were also present in the session room when the senator delivered his privileged speech.
Senator Francis "Chiz" Escudero lauded Zubiri's act and said that he could never be more "proud" of him.
"I admire his courage," Escudero said.
Before announcing his resignation, Zubiri enumerated his various accomplishments in the Senate. Zubiri said he has principally sponsored around 32 laws such as the Rent Control Act and the Mindanao Development Act, among others. As chairman of the Senate's Environment committee, Zubiri had been aggressively pushing for various environmental laws.
"I fulfilled my job responsibly with integrity and dignity," said Zubiri, who also claimed that he has a perfect attendance record in the Senate.
Prior to Zubiri's explosive speech on Wednesday, the issue on the alleged poll rigging in 2007 was revived following the revelations of Maguindanao massacre prime suspect Zaldy Ampatuan that massive poll fraud was conducted to favor candidates of then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. Zubiri was then accused of having been padded votes to bump off lawyer Koko Pimentel III from the roster of winning senators.
Ampatuan claimed that as then governor of the Autonomous Region for Muslim Mindanao, he had first-hand knowledge of the 2007 cheating that delivered a 12-0 sweep on Arroyo's senatorial candidates in his bailiwick in Maguindanao. Prior to the counting of the Maguindanao votes, Pimentel was leading by about 110,000 votes against Zubiri.
Upon the orders of First Gentleman Jose Miguel Arroyo, Ampatuan said that his father Andal Sr. rigged the polls in the province. The Commission on Elections had already expressed its interest in having Ampatuan as a witness to the electoral protest filed by Pimentel before the Senate Electoral Tribunal.
In his electoral protest, Pimentel claimed that Zubiri cheated in the 2007 elections in Maguindanao. He also called for the senator's resignation following the recent revelations of Ampatuan.
"Decency demands they should withdraw from their membership in Senate Electoral Tribunal in the same manner that Migs Zubiri should resign because it looks like he is the personification of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in this country,” Pimentel said at a July press conference in Quezon City.
Zubiri however swore he has no knowledge of any cheating on his part during the contested 2007 polls. The senator filed a counter protest.
"Isinusumpa ko sa inyong lahat, kung may dayaan, wala akong kinalaman doon (I swear to all of you, if indeed there was cheating, I have no participation there),” he said last month.
In his 2009 manifestation before the Senate, Zubiri said that he campaigned for several days in Maguindanao while Pimentel has never set foot there. Following the controversy in his 2007 win, Zubiri was among the first senators who supported the full automation of elections in 2010.
"I would not want anyone to go through what I had gone through," Zubiri said in 2009 regarding the poll cheating issue.