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The persecution of Senator Leila de Lima

SENATOR Leila de Lima attends the hearing at Regional Trial Court Branch 204 in Muntinlupa City on Nov. 4, 2022. — PHILIPPINE STAR/RUSSELL PALMA

It all started in August 2016 when Senator Leila de Lima convened Senate hearings into the killings of alleged drug users and drug dealers from the time President Rodrigo Duterte took office on June 30. At the hearing on Sept. 15, Edgar Matobato, who claimed to have worked as a former hitman for Mr. Duterte when he was mayor of Davao City, testified that Mr. Duterte was involved in the killing of about 1,000 people in Davao City, where Mr. Duterte had been mayor for more than two decades.

Matobato was scheduled to appear again in the Senate hearing on Sept. 19 to continue his testimony. But before he could do so, Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano, President Duterte’s vice-presidential running mate in the 2016 general elections, delivered a privilege speech in which he accused Sen. De Lima of misrepresenting to the international media the real status of the extrajudicial killings in the country. “We might all lose these wars, but the biggest loser… will be the economy. Why allow our institutions to be used that way?” he lamented.

Whereupon, neophyte senator Manny Pacquiao, a party-mate of President Duterte, moved that the Senate declare the chairmanship and membership of the Committee on Justice and Human Rights vacant. Sixteen senators voted yes. In effect, they ousted Sen. De Lima from the chairmanship of the committee.

The 16 senators who voted to oust Sen. De Lima were Sonny Angara, Nancy Binay, Alan Peter Cayetano, JV Ejercito, Sherwin Gatchalian, Richard Gordon, Gregorio Honasan, Panfilo Lacson, Loren Legarda, Manny Pacquiao, Koko Pimentel, Grace Poe, Tito Sotto, Cynthia Villar, Migz Zubiri, and Joel Villanueva, who ran for the Senate as a Liberal Party candidate. Liberal Party senators Frank Drilon, Kiko Pangilinan, Bam Aquino, and Risa Hontiveros voted “no.”

The senators who voted “yes” to bump Sen. De Lima off her Justice and Human Rights chair would also go on to vote “yes” to the extension of martial law which President Duterte imposed in Mindanao in May 2017. That indicates that those senators based their decisions on the bidding of the power that be. It also belies what Sen. Sotto likes to say that the Senate is composed of 24 independent minds.

The House of Representatives was not to be outdone. As Sen. De Lima remained a senator and member of the Senate committee and therefore still in a position, though a weaker one, to expose the viciousness of President Duterte’s “war on drugs,” the members of the House not only tried to destroy her credibility — nay, her character — they colluded to accomplish President Duterte’s wish that she rot in jail.

First, President Duterte’s allies in the House filed a resolution on Aug. 19 seeking an investigation into the proliferation of drug use at the New Bilibid Prison (NBP) when Sen. De Lima was Secretary of Justice. Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez led the filing of the resolution. The others were: Raneo Abu, Romeo Acop, Michael John Duavit, Rudy Fariñas, Paulino Salvador Leachon, Karlo Nograles, Eric Martinez, Danilo Suarez, Abraham Tolentino, and Jerry Treñas. Speaker Alvarez had earlier rejected a congressional probe into the spate of drug-related killings under the Duterte administration.

The House opened its investigation on Sept. 20 with Rep. Reynaldo Umali, chairman of the Committee on Justice, presiding. But he practically gave up his chairmanship of the committee in favor of a non-member of the House, Secretary of Justice Vitaliano Aguirre, who led the interpellation of witnesses against Sen. De Lima. Many of the witnesses were convicted felons, most of whom were serving life sentences.

Sitting right beside Mr. Aguirre was Persida Acosta, head of the Public Attorney’s Office. Rep. Acop asked her if she was acting as a deputy of Sec. Aguirre. She said she was there as the legal counsel to the convicts who had been summoned as witnesses. Strange that the chief public attorney was acting as counsel for witnesses who were convicts.

On Nov. 24, congressmen took turns in prying into the past love affair of then Secretary of Justice De Lima (her marriage had been annulled by then) with Ronnie Dayan, who was testifying against her. Representatives Fariñas, Castro, and Harry Roque (of the Kabayan Party-list) took great pleasure in asking him all sorts of personal, even lewd, questions — to the delight of the members (including lady members) of the Justice committee and to the media people present.

Their questions were criticized by some netizens, who took the three lawmakers to task for prying into a private love affair. For Rep. Micaela Violago, dwelling on Dayan and Sen. De Lima’s relationship was unnecessary as the details were private matters. Pastor Cesar Pabuayon of Kabayan Party-list said Rep. Roque’s questions were irrelevant to the subject of the hearing. They greatly affected the moral sensibilities of the party’s elders, according to him.

But Rep. Gwendolyn Garcia, a staunch ally of President Duterte, said her colleagues’ questions were necessary to establish Sen. De Lima’s alleged links to the drug trade. “I think I can understand my colleagues. The line of questioning (was) in trying to establish the closeness between Ronnie Dayan and Sen. De Lima… (which) would reflect on her official responsibility or capacity,” said she.

Justice Committee Chairman Umali said, “The hearing is not about persecuting Sen. De Lima. We are conducting an investigation in aid of legislation on the extent and magnitude of the illegal drugs trade right within the biggest prison facility in the country. The Bureau of Corrections that oversees the NBP is under the Department of Justice which she headed during the previous administration.” Yet only Sen. De Lima among former secretaries of Justice of previous administrations was summoned. Former Justice secretaries Hernando Perez, Merceditas Gutierrez, and Agnes Devanadera were not called. After all, Philippine National Police Deputy Chief Benjamin Magalong had testified that the illegal drugs trade within the NBP started in 2001.

Five months after the House investigation of then Justice Secretary De Lima’s alleged transactions with NBP detainees, Justice Secretary Aguirre filed three criminal complaints against her, accusing her of violating Section 5 of the Dangerous Drugs Act, which penalizes the “sale, trading, administration, dispensation, delivery, distribution and transportation of illegal drugs.”

On Feb. 23, 2017, Judge Juanita Guerrero of the Muntinlupa City Regional Trial Court (RTC) ordered the arrest of Sen. De Lima and two others for drug charges. The arrest warrant was issued less than a week after the Department of Justice filed charges against Sen. De Lima. The senator’s lawyer, Alex Padilla, found the issuance of the warrant “funny and sad” as Sen. De Lima’s camp had filed a motion to quash with the court which had yet to be heard. “I cannot but think it’s pre-judgment on the part of the judge,” Mr. Padilla said.

In the evening of that day, Philippine National Police Chief Ronald “Bato” de la Rosa, in his earnest desire to accomplish President Duterte’s wish, led a convoy of police vehicles to serve the arrest warrant to Sen. De Lima who had gone home to pack up the personal effects she would need in detention. But the Senate sergeant-at-arms told him the Senate would surrender Sen. De Lima the following morning. Police chief Dela Rosa had been catapulted from chief-of-police of Davao City to chief-of-police of the Philippines by President Duterte.

On Feb. 27, 2017, Sen. De Lima filed a petition for certiorari and prohibition before the Supreme Court, calling for the immediate issuance of a temporary restraining order against the proceedings and arrest. Then Solicitor General Jose Calida filed a manifestation before the Supreme Court seeking the dismissal of her petition, arguing that she falsified the notarizations on her affidavits. Her lawyers said the issue was “legal nitpicking and hair splitting.”

On Oct. 10, the Supreme Court en banc junked Sen. De Lima’s petition to nullify the arrest warrant, giving the Muntinlupa City RTC the go-signal to hear the drug cases. The ruling was penned by Associate Justice Noel Tijam. Associate Justices Presbitero J. Velasco, Jr., Teresita J. Leonardo-De Castro, Diosdado M. Peralta, Lucas P. Bersamin, Mariano C. Del Castillo, Estela M. Perlas Bernabe, Samuel R. Martires, Andres B. Reyes, Jr., and Alexander G. Gesmundo concurred.

Associate Justices Tijam, Velasco, De Castro, Peralta, Bersamin, Del Castillo, Bernabe, and Martires also voted to affirm President Duterte’s declaration of martial law in Mindanao. Associate Justices Velasco, De Castro, Peralta, Bersamin, Del Castillo, and Bernabe also voted to junk the petition to nullify President Duterte’s order to bury former president Ferdinand Edralin Marcos in the Libingan ng mga Bayani, in effect dismissing the status quo ante imposed to block attempts to bury Marcos in that cemetery.

Still, retired Chief Justice Artemio Panganiban says that jurists decide according to the rule of law.

Let me end this piece with what Sen. De Lima said about Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra, who continued her prosecution despite three key witnesses retracting their statements that led to her detention. “Up to the end of his term, Secretary Guevarra is minded to stand by the lies and manufactured evidence of the Duterte government, not wanting to displease his principal.”

Oscar P. Lagman, Jr. has been a keen observer of Philippine politics since the late 1950s.


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