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YearEnder: Senate bickering casts shadow over accomplishments

Senate President Aquilino Pimentel III said lawmakers must respect Duterte’s judgment in extending martial law for a year so that government forces can run after remnants of Islamic extremists that took over Marawi City for over five months. Pimentel office/Released, File

MANILA, Philippines — The Senate affirmed its support for the Duterte administration by backing – and extending twice – the declaration of martial law in Mindanao, even as bickering among senators and a string of controversial investigations cast a shadow over the chamber’s solid legislative accomplishments last year.

Just like their counterparts at the House of Representatives, senators voted overwhelmingly to extend martial law in Mindanao during joint sessions of Congress on July 22 and Dec. 13.

This was despite repeated warnings from their colleagues in the opposition that President Duterte’s declaration lacked constitutional basis and was fraught with danger.

Senate President Aquilino Pimentel III said lawmakers must respect Duterte’s judgment in extending martial law for a year so that government forces can run after remnants of Islamic extremists that took over Marawi City for over five months.

Other allies of the President, led by Sen. Gregorio Honasan, also backed the extension, saying the danger of extremism is real with the remnants of the Maute group and its cohorts at large and armed.

Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon, however, said Congress cannot turn a blind eye on Duterte’s “unconstitutional stretch of prerogative” since the fighting in Marawi was over.

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“If we continue to go down this track, there might come a time that truly calls for the declaration of martial law. By then, however, we will no longer have a trump card up our sleeve. Martial law would merely be a once-sharp blade that we had dulled through needless and constant use,” he warned in voting against the second extension of martial law.

De Lima arrested

On Feb. 24, or just seven months after the 17th Congress opened, Sen. Leila de Lima of the Liberal Party (LP) and a critic of Duterte’s war on drugs was arrested at the Senate on charges that she abetted the drug trade at the New Bilibid Prison when she was justice secretary during the Aquino administration.

Malacañang hailed her arrest as a major step forward in its campaign against illegal drugs as she was identified as one of the country’s “drug queens,” but De Lima and her allies in the Senate insisted that it was simple political persecution and vindictiveness on the part of Duterte, whom she investigated for allegedly leading extrajudicial killings when he was still mayor of Davao City.

Detained at the Philippine National Police Custodial Center at Camp Crame, De Lima continues to appeal her case before the Supreme Court and the Pasay City regional trial court – where at least three drug cases are lodged – while filing bills, issuing handwritten statements from her cell and receiving citations from various international human rights groups.

Cayetano to DFA

It was not only De Lima who left the Senate as Duterte appointed Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano, his runningmate in the 2016 elections, as foreign affairs secretary on May 10. The Commission on Appointments (CA) confirmed Cayetano’s appointment a few days later.

Days after De Lima was arrested, Sens. Franklin Drilon, Francis Pangilinan and Paolo Benigno Aquino IV of the LP and Sen. Risa Hontiveros were expelled from the majority bloc and stripped of their committee chairmanships.

Their ouster was triggered by their voting against several issues supported by Malacañang as well as their criticisms on the administration’s war on drugs; the burial of the late strongman Ferdinand Marcos at the Libingan ng mga Bayani and the reimposition of the death penalty, among others.

Things continued to be rough between certain senators, with some filing ethics complaints against each other and others nearly coming to blows.

Last September, Sen. Richard Gordon filed an ethics complaint against Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV and sought his ouster from the chamber, citing, among others, his pattern of unbecoming conduct and insulting persons and institutions, including staging failed coups and endangering the country’s sovereignty in the South China Sea.

Trillanes, who has repeatedly accused Gordon of protecting Duterte in various controversies, got back by filing an ethics complaint against Gordon, accusing him of corruption in using his position in the Senate and the Philippine Red Cross to pocket millions in public funds.

The complaints are being heard by the Senate ethics committee chaired by Majority Leader Vicente Sotto III.

Trillanes also formally followed up before the office of the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court to investigate Duterte for the spate of extrajudicial killings in the country.

Tokhang, fake news, other inquiries

The Senate took cognizance of the raging issues hounding the administration, including the drug-related extrajudicial killings; fake news; the kidnap-slay of Korean businessman Jee Ick-joo; the P50-million bribery scandal at the Bureau of Immigration (BI); the P6.5-billion drug smuggling case at the Bureau of Customs (BOC) and the proposed emergency powers to ease the transportation crisis in the country.

The Senate inquiries into extrajudicial killings as well as the murder of Jee were strung together even if they were conducted by different committees and started since 2016 as high-profile deaths, including the police killings of minors, in the war on drugs kept coming up.

The Senate committee on public order and dangerous drugs, chaired by Sen. Panfilo Lacson, also reopened the investigation into the so-called Davao death squad (DDS) after one of the key witnesses, retired police officer Arthur Lascañas, recanted and claimed Duterte ordered the killing of hundreds of suspected criminals when he was mayor.

The existence of the DDS was earlier denied by Lascañas during a previous inquiry of the Blue Ribbon committee, chaired by Gordon, which had already closed the investigation.

After one hearing last March, Lascañas’ testimony before Lacson’s panel was, however, found to be dubious, owing to numerous inconsistencies. Lacson and other senators found Lascañas to be not a credible witness after perjuring himself, even as Lacson vowed to pass legislation imposing stiffer penalties for perjury.

The public order committee also extended its inquiry of the Jee murder and the DDS after the surge in extrajudicial killings last September that saw several minors being killed.

Most senators were convinced that the police killings of minors, including Kian delos Santos and Carl Arnaiz, were clearly extrajudicial.

The Senate also detained former BOC chief Nicanor Faeldon for refusing to continue to testify before the Blue Ribbon committee, which was investigating the smuggling of some P6.5 billion worth of methamphetamine hydrochloride or shabu last May.

Sotto repeatedly expressed belief that based on the testimonies and documentary evidence gathered during the hearings, billions of pesos more of drugs slipped into the country in the past several months through fly-by-night customs brokers and “consignees-for-hire.”

Faeldon remains detained at the Senate.

The Senate also detained for several weeks Arvin Balag, believed to be the head of the Aegis Juris fraternity and one of the principal suspects in the hazing death of 22-year-old University of Santo Tomas law freshman Horacio Castillo III.

Castillo’s death at the hands of fraternity members last Sept. 17 was investigated by the public order committee, which is drafting amendments to strengthen the Anti-Hazing Law of 1995.

The Senate public services committee, chaired by Sen. Grace Poe, held hearings into the proposed Emergency Powers Bill to grant Duterte additional authority to address the worsening transportation crisis.

Poe lamented that the lack of support from Malacañang is delaying the bill’s approval in plenary as the country continues to suffer from economic losses and health cost with the worsening traffic congestion.

Poe, who also chairs the public information committee, launched an inquiry into fake news, after various sectors raised alarm on the proliferation of misleading and false reports that are passed off as legitimate news by dubious websites.

Accomplishments

Despite the political intrigues, the Senate was able to make significant strides in legislation, including the passage and enactment into law of landmark measures such as the free college education law.

Of several bills approved by the Senate, 10 became law, including amendments to the Anti-Money Laundering Act to include casinos as covered persons; the amendments to the Philippine Passport Act, which extended the validity of passports to 10 years; extension of the validity of driver’s licenses to five years; anti-hospital deposit law; amendments to the Revised Penal Code (adjusting penalties) and the postponement of the barangay and Sangguniang Kabataan elections last October to May next year.

The committee on health, chaired by Sen. Joseph Victor Ejercito, is finalizing the draft bill granting universal health care to all Filipinos.

Sen. Manny Pacquiao, who was closely watched for his performance in the Senate, said he was proud that out of the 10 laws signed by Duterte, one of them – the Free Internet Access Law – was one of his bills.

The chamber also approved a bill which seeks to amend Republic Act 53 or the Sotto Law to protect journalists from revealing their sources.

The 70-year-old law, authored by the late senator Vicente Sotto, exempted the publisher, editor, columnist or duly accredited reporter of any newspaper, magazine or periodical of general circulation from divulging their sources unless it endangered the security of the state.

Sotto, grandson of the late senator, said there is a need to expand the coverage to include journalists from broadcast and online news networks.

He added that the public now gets news not just from print media but also through other sources such as television, radio and the internet.

Poe said the measure could not be used to protect a person from libel. Trillanes is a co-author of the measure.

Progressive TRAIN

The chamber also managed to improve the administration revenue program – the Tax Reform for Acceleration and Inclusion (TRAIN) – signed into law last month.

The amendments, mostly to cushion the effects of higher taxes on wage earners and the poor, were put in by Sen. Sonny Angara, chair of the ways and means committee; Senate President Pro Tempore Ralph Recto; Ejercito; Poe; Lacson and Sens. Cynthia Villar, Loren Legarda, Joel Villanueva, Nancy Binay and Juan Miguel Zubiri.

Among the amendments made were on the raising of the take-home pay of workers through higher tax exemptions on salaries and bonuses; lower taxes on certain basic commodities like sugar-sweetened beverages; and rescheduling the excise taxes on fuel.

Treaties

The Senate also concurred in the ratification of at least two major treaties – the Paris Agreement on Climate Change and the International Labor Organization 151 on civil servants’ rights.

Legarda, who chairs the foreign affairs committee, said the chamber’s concurrence on the treaties will reap benefits for the country in terms of aid as well as recognition for the protection of various human rights.

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