MANILA, Philippines – The Senate will begin on Monday, March 6, the reinvestigation of the Davao Death Squad (DDS), starring confessed hitman Arturo "Arthur" Lascañas and his explosive accusations against the popular President Rodrigo Duterte.
It took the upper chamber 3 days from the time the retired Davao cop delivered his "turnaround" confession at a press conference held in the Senate premises, to the vote that sealed the reopening of the inquiry. Here's a review of the political drama that unfolded during – and even after– that brief period.
The public confession
It began on February 20, when Senator Antonio Trillanes IV called for a 10 am press conference at the Sumulong Room of the Senate building. The media advisory was sent only hours before and did not specify the topic.
Contrary to the claim of Press Secretary Martin Andanar that unidentified individuals offered members of the media $1,000 to cover Lascañas, the media did not even know the retired cop was the resource person that day.
Instead of Trillanes, the lawyers from the Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG) entered the Sumulong room. Lascañas followed shortly after, and introduced himself as a former member of the Davao City Police. Then his bold announcement set the tone of the press conference.
In Filipino Lascañas said, "Today is when my blind obedience and loyalty to Mayor Rodrigo Roa Duterte ends." (READ: Profile of Arthur Lascañas)
What he said in his "public confession" were sensational tales – and very serious accusations – of how Duterte, when he was mayor, paid him and other DDS members as much as P100,000 to kill notorious individuals in Davao City. (READ: Ex-Davao policeman tags Duterte in death squad, murder)
It was a turnaround testimony from what he said, under oath, at a Senate hearing October 2016, where he denied the existence of the DDS and called another self-confessed hitman, Edgar Matobato, a liar. (READ: Which information from Matobato does Lascañas corroborate?)
The issue was, how would the Senate accommodate Lascañas' new testimony when the committee on justice and human rights, chaired by Senator Richard Gordon, had terminated its hearings on the DDS and had, in fact, already filed a committee report?
After 6 hearings, Gordon concluded that neither Duterte nor his state agents were responsible for the alleged extrajudicial killings (EJKs) in the drug war.
During the afternoon session that same Monday, Trillanes made a manifestation to refer the Lascañas testimony to the committee on public order and dangerous drugs chaired by Senator Panfilo Lacson. Majority Leader Senator Vicente "Tito" Sotto III approved Trillanes' motion.
The referral reportedly caught everybody by surprise, which prompted the senators to hold a closed-door caucus instead of discussing the motion on the floor.
The caucus was held the next day, Tuesday, February 21. According to various sources privy to the information, Gordon gruffly told the senators during the caucus that he would not allow another hearing on EJKs. Gordon would later air this sentiment in a privilege speech, saying it would not reflect well on the Senate to allow Lascañas to testify again when he had earlier lied under oath.
Senators from the Liberal Party insisted on a reinvestigation which, according to sources, made Gordon even more upset.
At that point, the senators decided to hold a vote on whether or not to reopen the hearing.
Senate President Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel III, Duterte's key ally in the Senate, was reportedly confident he had the numbers but was taken aback when 10 hands were raised favoring the reinvestigation. He was quoted by sources as saying: “Aba, marami-rami rin pala (It’s a sizeable number)."
The 10 were: Trillanes, Leila de Lima, Risa Hontiveros , Francis Escudero, Ralph Recto, Joel Villanueva, Paolo Benigno Aquino IV, Francis Pangilinan, Franklin Drilon, and Sonny Angara.
Seven opposed the move: Pimentel, Gordon, Manny Pacquiao, Sherwin Gatchalian, Gregorio Honasan II, Juan Miguel Zubiri, and Cynthia Villar
Five were reported to have abstained: Sotto, Lacson, Nancy Binay, Loren Legarda, and JV Ejercito.
Senator Alan Peter Cayetano, another Duterte ally, was absent.
Gordon threatened to give up chairmanship?
We also learned that Gordon threatened to resign as chairman of the justice committee. He was supposed to deliver a privilege speech during the afternoon session on Tuesday after the caucus, but he never got to do it because the session was adjourned abruptly.
The sources said this was to give Gordon time to rethink his pronouncement. Gordon eventually did not resign but reiterated his position that Senate rules prohibit Lascañas from testifying under oath again.
All senators evaded the media after that session – even Trillanes could only tell reporters that he felt good.
It was Pacquiao who said the caucus was tense: "Mainit ang bawa't isa, mahirap mag-desisyon kung emosyonal ka. Hindi lang isang bagay, maraming kino-consider na ideas (Everybody was emotional, it's hard to decide if you're emotional, not just on one issue, we considered many ideas).
The result of the caucus vote was published by news outfits later that night.
Sources told Rappler that on Tuesday night after the caucus, several senators went to Malacañang to meet with Duterte to "re-strategize."
Trillanes and De Lima would tell media the same on Wednesday, February 22.
"Nagpatawag ng meeting sa Malacañang. I’m sure, hindi naman sila naghapunan lang (There was a meeting in Malacañang. I'm sure they didn't only have dinner there). You'll have to ask the senators who attended that meeting kung ano pinag-usapan nila (what they talked about)," Trillanes said.
"We know for a fact na may mga ipinatawag kagabi sa Palasyo (We know for a fact that some senators were called to the Palace last night)," De Lima said while also saying she was not sure which Senators.
Gordon, for his part, said he did not go to Malacañang on Tuesday night because he was entertaining guests who came from abroad.
'We met, but not about Lascañas'
On Thursday, February 23, Sotto confirmed to the media that there was indeed a meeting at Malacañang with Duterte on Tuesday night. Sotto said that some senators, including him, had requested for that meeting weeks earlier even before Lascañas made the confession. Sotto also clarified that Lascañas was not "even a sidelight" in the meeting.
After the denial of one of its officials, Malacañang officially confirmed the meeting, referring to Sotto's statements made earlier in the day.
Presidential Spokesperson Ernesto Abella told reporters: "There is no truth to the allegation of Senator De Lima that the senators were pressured by Malacañang with regards to the reopening of the investigation on the DDS. The group of senators met with the President but they did not talk about the case of the retired police officer Lascañas."
"Palagay ko diyan sila kinakabahan talaga e, nangangatog na mga tuhod ng mga ito dun sa hearing na gagawin (I think they're nervous, their knees are shaking thinking of the hearing)," Trillanes said.
Still, after much tension, controversies and public contentions from Gordon and Cayetano, the Senate decided to let Lacson's committee handle the reinvestigation. Lacson said there was no pressure from Malacañang, at least in his case, with regard to the reinvestigation.
After the 3-day scramble over the reinvestigation of the DDS, the Senate continued to be hounded by controversy because that same Thursday, a local court issued the arrest warrant against De Lima on charges of being part of the drug trade. De Lima was arrested on Friday, February 24.
The issues of Lascañas and De Lima exposed a divided Senate – one side belongs to the once-ruling Liberal Party (LP), and the other side allied with Duterte.
That division became evident on Sunday, February 26, when the LP Senators and their allies were left out and became the subject of a meeting at Pacquiao's house. Fifteen senators attended the meeting and planned the ouster of LP-allied senators Franklin Drilon, Francis Pangilinan, Paolo Benigno Aquino, and Risa Hontiveros.
The plan was quickly put into action. On Monday, February 27, Pacquiao motioned and succeeded in removing Drilon as Senate President Pro-Tempore, Pangilinan as agriculture committee chairman, Aquino as education committee chairman, and Akbayan's Hontiveros as health committee chair.
Pacquiao said Duterte had nothing to do with the ouster, and that it was done because the LP-allied senators were getting in the way of legislation.
"Hindi tayo makakagawa ng trabaho dito sa Senado kung hindi natin gaganunin. Ako, ayoko mamulitika. Kumbaga, nandito tayo para magtrabaho, para sa taumbayan, hindi 'yung porma-porma tayo, pamumulitika," Pacquiao said.
(We won't be able to do our jobs properly in the Senate if we didn't do that. Personally, I don't want to politicize things. I mean, I'm here to work for the people, not to make myself look good or engage in politics.)
The Senate has had a rough two weeks and it will only get more difficult as they are set to cast a spotlight on Lascañas, who will once again drag Duterte into the scandal that has been hounding him for decades.
What happens next? It's worth watching closely. – Rappler.com