After U.S. ban, Duterte gov’t officials insist De Lima detention lawful

MANILA, Philippines (3rd UPDATE) – Officials of the Duterte administration are, one by one, dismissing the United States' sanctions denying entry to Philippine officials involved in the detention of Senator Leila de Lima. 

Presidential Spokesperson and Chief Presidential Legal Counsel Salvador Panelo asserted that the opposition senator was imprisoned according to Philippine laws.

 "In the first place, it's not a wrongful imprisonment. We have explained that. So I suppose the Secretary of State (Mike Pompeo) – unlike the two senators who have introduced that amendment – is better informed and educated on the internal judicial process of this country and would necessarily follow his informed judgement," Panelo said in a press conference on Monday, December 23.

Panelo made the remark after United States President Donald Trump on Friday, December 20, approved the US 2020 budget that includes a provision denying entry to those involved in the detention of Philippine opposition De Lima. (READ: Trump OKs budget, includes U.S. ban on De Lima accusers)

The prohibition on entry was part of the general provisions of the 2020 State and foreign operations appropriations bill. It tasks the US Secretary of State to prohibit from entering the US, Philippine officials about whom he has "credible information [to] have been involved in the wrongful imprisonment" of De Lima.

Panelo – who was among individuals identified by De Lima to be involved in her detention – downplayed the sanctions as he claimed no "credible information" existed to bar Philippine officials from entering the United States.  (READ: What we know so far: Proposed U.S. sanctions vs PH officials in drug war)

"The very provision says there must be credible information before they ban any official in the Philippines. There is none," he said. (READ: De Lima had it coming – Panelo)

Lawful imprisonment, how? Panelo argued De Lima's detention followed Philippine laws as an administrative probe found "probable cause" for the filing of information against the opposition senator. This, he said, was affirmed by a judge who examined evidence pertaining to De Lima's case and issued an arrest of warrant accordingly.

The probes culminated in the arrest of De Lima after the Department of Justice, under then Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II, filed 3 counts of drug trade against the senator for supposedly extorting drug money from New Bilibid Prison convicts. 

Six dissenters in the Supreme Court (SC) slammed the continued detention of De Lima, with a former SC senior associate justice calling it "one of the grossest injustices" in recent memory. 

De Lima, who has been detained for over two years now, asserts she the trumped-up drug charges were fabricated by the Duterte government to silence her. 

"If that is a trumped-up charge then the prosecutor could have seen it, as well as the judicial officer who issued a warrant," Panelo claimed.

De Lima was arraigned only 18 months after she was arrested in February 2017. In the course of her trial, 6 judges have withdrawn from handling her case through inhibiting or retiring.

Unfazed by the action: Panelo then brushed aside the sanctions as he said the Duterte administration was "not bothered" by them, and that it would not 'intrude' in actions the US government would take to keep with the Philippines' own stand against foreign interference.

In a series of tweets on Monday, Foreign Secretary Teodoro "Teddyboy" Locsin Jr echoed Panelo as he argued the Supreme Court's decision upholding De Lima's detention proved it was lawful.

"To its credit, the Republic's highest legal authority ruled them (drug convicts) sufficient prosecution and trial – 2x (twice). The US [amendment] was by senators of varied talents; the SC ruling was by honor graduates. Point PH," Locsin tweeted.

The foreign affairs chief likewise dismissed the sanctions, saying the effort by US lawmakers was "of no moment." He then used the recent guilty Ampatuan massacre verdict as "proof" the Philippine justice system worked.

ON TOP OF WHICH the decision in the Maguindanao Massacre proves our justice system works better than the American which let the My Lai killers off; although the great woman judge should've convicted the PNP accomplices as well. Kin of victims should've had 'em shot in the head. https://t.co/mw7XgRKz7k — Teddy Locsin Jr. (@teddyboylocsin) December 23, 2019

Lawmakers, too: House Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano on Monday hit back at the United States Congress for concluding that the detainment of Senator Leila de Lima is unlawful despite a Supreme Court decision. 

Kapag diretsuhan ka na nakikialam at may judgement na sila na unlawful at illegal ang pagkakakulong…pinangungunahan ba ng US Congress ang ating judicial system?” Cayetano said. 

(If they directly intervene and there’s a judgement already that the detainment is unlawful and illegal, is the US Congress getting ahead of our judicial system?) 

“Let's hope that this is temporary and I'd like them to send a congressional delegate to see what's really happening,” he added. 

Former majority house leader Rudy Fariñas, meanwhile, is expressed doubts Pompeo “will find anyone under those terms,” as the arrest warrant was issued by a judge and upheld by the SC. 

He also cleared his name, saying that he was not involved in the arrest of De Lima. 

“I only participated in the congressional inquiry, which she snubbed,” Fariñas said. “We only filed a case for disobedience to a subpoena issued by Congress, for which she has not been imprisoned for such offense is bailable and carries only light penalties.”  

High profile inmates from the New Bilibid Prison testified during marathon hearings at the House of Representatives over De Lima’s alleged links to illegal drugs. It was also in the House hearings where De Lima’s personal life was put on display and, according to critics, widely ridiculed as his former aide Ronnie Dayan testified. 

Congressmen grilled Dayan about his relationship with his former boss, using irrelevant questions that sought to bring out malicious details beyond the scope of what they were investigating. (READ: ‘Kailan kayo nag-climax?’: Nonsense questions at the Bilibid drugs hearing

Time of reckoning: In a statement on Tuesday, December 24, De Lima disputed Panelo's attempt to argue her detention was lawful, saying the only thing left to determine was not whether she was persecuted but rather the identities of officials responsible for her imprisonment.

"Malacañang cannot still get over the fact that no one gets away with injustice and violating human rights. No one gets away with impunity and tyranny. Duterte, Panelo, and all of Philippine DDS officialdom should realize by now how their happy days are almost at an end," De Lima said.

The senator warned that with additional Magnitsky sanctions against Philippine officials involved in her case and in extrajudicial killings looming, it would only be a matter of time before other countries with similar measures followed suit to hold human rights violators accountable.

Among the countries with laws similar to the US' Global Magnitsky Act are the United Kingdom, Estonia, Canada, Lithuania, and Latvia. Meanwhile, similar legislation is being pursued in Australia, France, Denmark, the Netherlands, South Africa, Sweden, and Ukraine, among other countries.

Foreign ministers of the European Union (EU) also agreed on December 9 to draft the region's own version of the Global Magnitsky Act.

"When that time comes, this regime will be properly identified with that part of the world with which it shares values – those ruled by corrupt and repressive one-party governments and those controlled by bureaucracy-embedded criminal organizations," De Lima said.

"If these DDS officials want to be identified with the free world and be treated as its citizens, they cannot act like tyrants and criminals. If they want to be citizens of Rome, they cannot behave like barbarians. It is as simple as that," she added. – with reports from Jodesz Gavilan/Rappler.com

Sofia Tomacruz

Sofia Tomacruz covers foreign affairs, the overseas Filipino workers, and elections. She also writes stories on the treatment of women and children. Follow her on Twitter @sofiatomacruz. Email her at sofia.tomacruz@rappler.com.

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