The Long View: Doubling down on De Lima


Doubling down on De Lima

Doubling down on De Lima

There was something symbolic about Leila de Lima achieving full vindication on the third death anniversary of former president Benigno S. Aquino III. As he himself recounted, she’d frankly told him that she hadn’t even voted for him for president, but that didn’t deter him from giving her the Justice portfolio on the best administrative principle of all: that she was the best person for the job. And it was in fulfillment of that job that she offended Rodrigo R. Duterte so that her imprisonment on trumped-up charges became one of the hallmarks of his presidency.

Trumped-up is the only possible description for the charges that ended up filed against her and which, after seven long years, the courts eventually dismissed or deemed without merit. But not before the mandate she’d been given by the Filipino people—to not just legislate, as a senator, but also to exercise oversight over the executive– was taken away.

Denying her the first was a political bonus as far as the Duterte administration was concerned: It whittled down the opposition’s numbers and put everyone on notice of what could happen to legislators who defied the then-President. But it was in depriving her of the second, less-widely understood role senators play—in exercising oversight over the executive, something they are politically equipped to do, because they alone, besides the president and vice president, enjoy a nationwide mandate—that the fundamentally personal nature of her persecution should be understood.

Salvador Panelo himself said as much in his statement responding to De Lima’s exoneration: “Her incarceration was her punishment for the grave injustice she committed against [former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo] when as secretary of justice, in contemptuous defiance of the order of the Supreme Court allowing [Arroyo] to travel for medical treatment abroad stopped her on the day of her departure and caused her arrest and ultimate detention for plunder charges, for which the former president was exonerated … Her long detention is also punishment for her persecution of [former president Rodrigo R. Duterte] when he was still mayor of Davao City when she used the human rights commission as its head in falsely accusing the former as behind the extrajudicial killings in Davao—which false narrative she continued to foist when she was DOJ secretary …”

Except she was imprisoned for neither thing. Perhaps Arroyo discovered she couldn’t be prosecuted for foiling their great escape attempt, because a review of the facts would reveal that the Arroyos hadn’t actually fulfilled all three conditions imposed by the Supreme Court to allow them to go abroad (the impeachment of Renato Corona revealed his helpfulness: as I put it in 2012, during the impeachment, “So what the Chief Justice did, was he aided and abetted GMA by way of his spokesman who misled the public about the effectivity of the TRO handed down by the Court. He never corrected his spokesman on Nov. 15 up to the present and instead, intervened to write a clarificatory resolution based on fiction and not fact, and then tried to censor a fellow Justice fully entitled to publish her dissenting opinion.”

And perhaps Duterte knew that for all his bluster, De Lima sitting in the Senate would leave, unchallenged, the sequence of events which might eventually lead to the International Criminal Court (ICC) conducting what would be sheer impossibility in the Philippines: a thorough investigation leading to a judicial resolution, of the question of state-approved liquidations in the so-called “war on drugs.”

Instead, she was imprisoned because of charges that, one after the other, had been based on testimony that was later abjured and witnesses who recanted. The list of accomplices to make this possible is long; in the might-makes-right, “pare-pareho lang sila” world of the Arroyos and Dutertes, these willing accomplices are part of the equity of the incumbent. But what was unusual was the manner in which the Senate forgot itself and meekly handed over one of its own.

Since the uncle-nephew duo of Serging and Sonny Osmeña (two from the same family are what’s been considered acceptable proprietary interest in the Senate), the Vice President just yesterday declared their family is calling dibs on three seats: one each for Rodrigo, Paulo, and Sebastian in the Senate in 2025. It’s a bold move: on one hand, it invites speculation that the only way to give them the De Lima treatment would be to roll out the red carpet for the ICC; on the other, that possibility raises a red alert for everyone who could be indicted as a co-conspirator; and third, it assumes the Senate in 2025 onwards would have more institutional self-respect and courage than the Senate that meekly, even easily, threw De Lima overboard.

That’s quite a bet!

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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