Senators to hold caucus today on Leila arrest

Paolo Romero - The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines - Senators will go into a caucus today to discuss Sen. Leila de Lima’s expected arrest and the assistance the chamber may give her, Senate President Aquilino Pimentel III said yesterday.

Pimentel, however, admitted there is almost nothing that the Senate could do for De Lima, citing the separation of powers and independence of the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government.

This was in reaction to suggestions that the Senate take custody of its beleaguered member should a warrant of arrest be issued against her. The Department of Justice (DOJ) said it was expecting the arrest warrant against De Lima to come out early this week.

But Pimentel warned the Philippine National Police (PNP) against disrespecting De Lima and the chamber if they arrest her on drug charges.

Pimentel suggested that De Lima make representations with the judge concerned on her possible place of detention as the senator would be under the jurisdiction of the court if she is arrested.

“The person, or the lawyer of the person, even the police affected by the details of the (arrest) order, can make manifestations before the court. This is not about any special treatment, after all, it is the judgment call of the court,” Pimentel said.

He also urged De Lima to bring to the Supreme Court her petition that her cases be investigated by the Office of the Ombudsman and not filed before the regular courts.

He said there has always been a debate on whether a crime attributed to a sitting public official was committed in connection with his or her office.

De Lima said she should have been charged before the ombudsman, being a public official.

Malacañang, for its part, would not comment on reports of De Lima’s pending arrest.

“Let’s just follow due process,” presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella told state-run radio dzRB yesterday.

President Duterte has accused De Lima of receiving money from drug lords, adding that the senator would “rot in jail.”


Treat her with respect


Pimentel, meanwhile, aired the warning to the PNP as the Muntinlupa City regional trial court (RTC) is set to raffle off today the non-bailable criminal cases filed last week by the DOJ against De Lima to a branch that may issue a warrant of arrest against her.

He said the PNP must coordinate first with De Lima and Senate officials if they are going to make the arrest, adding disrupting legislative sessions is punishable under the Revised Penal Code.

Pimentel also advised De Lima and her lawyers to make representations with the PNP as to their preference on how the arrest – if ordered by the court – would proceed.

“It is only proper that the senator will be treated well, even ordinary Filipinos, or the homeless, should be treated humanely and with respect,” Pimentel told radio dzBB.

But he said the filing of charges would not automatically mean that a warrant would be immediately issued, as the concerned judge would have to determine if there is prima facie evidence to try De Lima.

The DOJ filed three charges against the senator in connection with the illegal drug trade at the New Bilibid Prison that administration officials alleged flourished under her watch as justice secretary.

De Lima described the charges as fabricated and part of President Duterte’s efforts to get back at her for criticizing his brutal war against illegal drugs.

International watchdog Human Rights Watch (HRW) also called on the Duterte administration to “immediately drop” the “politically motivated” cases filed against De Lima.

In a statement posted on its website yesterday, the New York-based group said the filing of cases against De Lima was an act of “political vindictiveness” as the senator is a staunch critic Duterte’s drug war.

HRW deputy Asia director Phelim Kine said this “debases the rule of law in the Philippines” and that the “Duterte administration seems intent on using the courts to punish prominent critics of its murderous ‘war on drugs.’”

The group noted that it was De Lima who initiated a Senate investigation on the rising number of extrajudicial killings in the country in relation to the Duterte administration’s campaign against illegal drugs.

At the height of the investigation, De Lima was ousted by her fellow senators as chairman of the Senate justice committee due to allegations of bias against the Duterte administration.

The HRW also noted that De Lima, during her term as the head of the Commission on Human Rights and as justice secretary, conducted a probe into the summary killings supposedly perpetrated by the so-called Davao death squad, a vigilante group allegedly created by Duterte during his term as Davao City mayor.

The group said these are the reasons why Duterte and his allies are bent on prosecuting the senator.

“The politically motivated case against De Lima shows how Duterte’s ‘war on drugs’ threatens not only the thousands of people targeted, but the criminal justice and political systems,” Kine said.

“It’s more important than ever that concerned lawmakers and foreign governments step up to denounce the Duterte administration’s disregard for basic human rights,” he added.


She did the same


Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II finds De Lima’s criticism of her indictment before the Muntinlupa City court puzzling, because she filed charges against sitting government officials when she was at the helm of the DOJ.

“It’s hypocrisy. That’s what she did to GMA (former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo) and others,” Aguirre told The STAR yesterday when asked about De Lima’s argument that she should have been charged before the ombudsman.

Aguirre said De Lima, being a former justice secretary, should know very well the power of the DOJ to prosecute government officials before courts for cases outside the jurisdiction of the Sandiganbayan.

“It is the RTC that has original and exclusive jurisdiction over the three cases, regardless of the high position of the respondent. Trading in illegal drugs has no connection with the performance of her duties as (former) secretary of justice,” he explained.

He said the senator should instead just prove her innocence in court, just like what Arroyo and the others did.

The DOJ chief has also defended the indictment of the senator, again denying her insinuation that politics was behind the drug cases.

Aguirre stressed that the cases for violation of Republic Act 9165 (Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act) the DOJ filed against the feisty senator were based on months of preliminary investigation conducted by a panel of prosecutors that De Lima opted to ignore.

“(The) cases filed against Senator de Lima are all criminal in nature. Some of these cases involved illegal drugs. They are not politically motivated,” he pointed out.

Aguirre also rebutted the claim of De Lima that she would become a “political prisoner” should the Muntinlupa City RTC find preliminary merit in the cases and order her arrest.

“Drug cases do not involve one’s political beliefs. It involves one’s choice to be involved in illegal drugs,” he explained.

Aguirre reiterated that he had no hand in the cases against De Lima as the panel of prosecutors was independent in conducting the preliminary investigation.

He recalled inhibiting from all the cases against the senator even from the start of the proceedings in the DOJ.

De Lima did not appear in the DOJ hearings on charges against her and other respondents and instead asked that all the cases be transferred to the ombudsman.

When the DOJ panel rejected her motion, she sought relief from the Court of Appeals (CA), which also last week denied her plea for issuance of a temporary restraining order (TRO).

Aguirre said the decision of the CA to deny her TRO plea was a recognition of the DOJ’s prosecutorial power over elected officials on high crimes like illegal drug trafficking.

Aguirre said he expects the RTC to issue the arrest warrant early this week.

“If the warrant of arrest is issued, then we will ask the court to issue a hold departure order,” he bared.

This order would prevent De Lima from leaving the country if she would not surrender or be arrested. 

The VACC, for its part, lauded the DOJ for De Lima’s indictment, which it branded a “triumph of the rule of law and the criminal justice system.” –With Edu Punay, Alexis Romero, Elizabeth Marcelo

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