AS Senators Leila de Lima and Antonio Trillanes IV tell it, President Rodrigo Duterte is out to silence the former with trumped-up charges, and evade accusations of illicit wealth by denying the latter access to his and his family’s bank accounts.
For his part, President Duterte asserts that Senator De Lima is evading justice for her involvement in drug trafficking at the New Bilibid Prisons, under her oversight as justice secretary. And Senator Trillanes is rehashing baseless claims of sleazy bank funds.
The good news is there are long-established ways to impartially verify what’s true and what’s false.
Senator Trillanes can file charges at the Office of the Ombudsman, backed by his alleged bank records. He can also use the findings of the Anti-Money Laundering Council, which the President has instructed to probe his accounts.
Now, it remains to be seen if he can get banks to set aside secrecy and validate his claimed documents. Any institution affirming the papers would face questions, if not sanctions, over the leaking of its depositors’ records.
For fairness, Trillanes can petition Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales to recuse herself, being aunt to Duterte’s son-in-law. The OMB may decide, however, that charges against the President are not a priority, since he is immune from prosecution until he steps down in mid-2022.
As for investigations in aid of impeachment, Trillanes’s charges don’t qualify, since an official cannot be impeached for alleged offenses before he took office.
Which may be one reason the senator is going to media. The other reason, critics contend, is his real wish for grandstanding, to erode support for the administration and project himself as graftbuster.
Whatever his motives, impartial media and informed Filipinos might not indulge Senator Trillanes. Indeed, many wonder why President Duterte bothers to publicly joust with him, gifting him the publicity he craves. But then, Digong isn’t one to back down from a fight, especially one over not just his integrity, but his family honor.
The wheels of justice and injustice
For her part, De Lima has stirred public and media anticipation for her arrest, calling herself Duterte’s first political prisoner. But it is a judge whom Senator De Lima must win over in three drug-trafficking charges filed at the Muntinlupa Regional Trial Court by the Department of Justice she once headed.
Her supporters complain that she cannot obtain justice under this administration. And she has constantly portrayed herself as an innocent victim of political persecution for denouncing killings in Duterte’s anti-drug war.
The cases may take years, when she may be incarcerated, since the charges are non-bailable if evidence is strong. Fortunately for her, the Muntinlupa court, not the DOJ, will decide if the prosecution’s material warrants trial, first of all, and whether there is strong evidence of guilt, for which bail may be denied.
Jail sans bail may cramp De Lima’s advocacy, but that is no big loss for the campaign against EJKs. There are more influential entities taking up this righteous cause, like the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, foreign business chambers, and the United Nations. These entities are not seen as partisan or in cahoots with narco-syndicates.
Now, if the CBCP, global business, and the UN can’t budge the government on the killings, neither can De Lima. So, allowing the wheels of justice to turn for or against her won’t derail anti-EJK protests. But letting her off the hook just to keep her talking against killings would be unjust, unlawful, and immoral.
De Lima fears what Arroyo suffered
What about the courts? Won’t judges buckle under presidential pressure and rush to convict her?
De Lima also fears she may be killed in detention, just like accused drug trafficker and murdered Albuera, Leyte, mayor Rolando Espinosa.
Those fears are real, judging from what happened in the past regime.
In November 2011, days after then-Secretary De Lima disobeyed a Supreme Court order allowing former President Gloria Arroyo to go abroad for treatment, a Pasay judge issued within hours of receiving reams of charge documents, an arrest warrant and a hold-departure order against the hospitalized congresswoman.
That was after the Commission on Elections itself, under then-President Benigno Aquino 3rd’s former poll lawyer Sixto Brilliantes Jr., took just two days to order election sabotage charges against Arroyo, even if it had nil documents demonstrating electoral fraud in the 2007 senatorial race.
That absent documentation eventually led the judge to grant Arroyo bail. So did the dubious testimony of the lone witness in the case, who was promised immunity from prosecution for claiming he overheard Arroyo order vote cheating.
After Arroyo got bail in July 2012, Ombudsman Morales filed a plunder case over alleged misspending of intelligence funds at the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office—even if OMB lawyers advised against the charge, since none of the accused got PCSO money. Plunder requires that offenders amass at least P50 million in illicit gains.
The Sandiganbayan anti-graft court denied bail, purportedly after Aquino called the judges. It ordered the trial to proceed, arguing that there could be plunder even if no one got state funds illegally. That ruling contravened the plunder law itself. The court also detained Arroyo even after exonerating or granting bail to nearly all her co-accused.
No wonder the UN declared that her rights had been violated, and the Supreme Court ordered the case dismissed. She walked free last July.
Arroyo also faced the peril of death in detention. A misaligned titanium implant in her neck could cause food to be caught in her throat, stopping breathing.
Yet the Sandiganbayan refused to let her get corrective treatment abroad, as she rightly wanted after three unsuccessful operations by topnotch doctors at St. Luke’s Global Medical Center, one of the country’s leading hospitals.
So, judging from what happened to Representative Arroyo, Sen. De Lima could indeed suffer injustice in court and danger to her life in detention. But she won’t, because the President is Duterte, not Aquino.