When it rains, it pours. And information on the startling goings-on at the New Bilibid Prison (NBP)—startling for the ease with which scandalous acts are so easily pulled off—has been pouring on the national consciousness: Not only have heinous-crime convicts been released on alleged good behavior, “high-risk” drug convicts, the testimony of seven of whom was used as basis for the arrest and incarceration of Sen. Leila de Lima, have also been moved out and transferred to the Philippine Marines’ detention facility in Fort Bonifacio.
The transfer of the 10 men, including Peter Co, whom President Duterte once described as one of the top suppliers of crystal meth in the country, was made last June. Since the matter was made public last week, Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra has swung, as it were, from tree to tree: initially saying that the transfer needed authorization by a court, and, subsequently, that no court order was necessary because the President was fully empowered to make the transfer. (The justice secretary made a similar swinging act in commenting on the then planned release of the rapist-murderer Antonio Sanchez: initially saying that the former town mayor was eligible under supposed good behavior, and, subsequently, that no, he was not.)
The President admitted having ordered the transfer of Co et al., bewildering the harried observer and adding to the general sentiment that impropriety and an astounding indifference to public opinion now ruled the realm. Co, Hans Anton Tan, Jojo Baligad, Vicente Sy, Froilan Trestiza, Nonilo Arile and Joel Capones had testified against De Lima, whom this administration is treating as an enemy; surely, their transfer, along with the other three drug convicts Chua Che Ket, Rico Caja and Allan Senogat, to the relative comfort of the Marines’ barracks suggested a monarch’s favored treatment of vassals.
But in a speech on Sept. 6 at the groundbreaking of a housing project for families displaced by a landslide last year in Naga City, Cebu, the President said he had ordered the transfer for security reasons: He “feared that De Lima still had many allies left [in the NBP] and those who testified against her might be slaughtered,” and no one would be left “to tell the truth.”
“Slaughtered”? (The word calls to mind the killing of the accused drug lord, Mayor Rolando Espinosa of Albuera, Leyte, by police officers who entered his cell at the Baybay City Provincial Jail in the dead of night and did him in, along with another inmate who was in the classic wrong place at the wrong time.) But to portray De Lima as a warlord with minions to do her bidding, with presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo claiming that she “accumulated sympathizers and henchmen” when she was justice secretary, is absurd.
A critic of Mr. Duterte even when she chaired the Commission on Human Rights, the senator was arrested in February 2017 for alleged involvement in the drug trade at the national penitentiary when she held the justice portfolio in 2010-2015, and has since been held in near-isolation in Camp Crame.
Can this woman logically be seen as wielding such formidable influence as to make possible the slaughter of certain maximum-security prisoners in the NBP, when she couldn’t even prevent her arrest on a questionable charge? (Addressing a crowd of Duterte supporters at Rizal Park a day later, then Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II famously asked who they wanted arrested next: “Sino ang gusto nyong isunod?”) When, in October 2017, the Supreme Court voted 9-6 to throw out her petition that her arrest be nullified? (“To allow the continued detention of [De Lima],” Associate Justice Antonio Carpio wrote in his dissenting opinion, is “one of the grossest injustices ever perpetrated in recent memory in full view of the Filipino people and the entire world.”)
And memory can’t be so short as to preclude remembering of the House of Representatives’ horrific inquiry into the drug trade at the national penitentiary in September 2016, in which Aguirre, virtually presiding over the proceedings, directed the questioning of the drug convicts on De Lima’s alleged involvement. That inquiry, conducted by the House committee on justice chaired by Rep. Reynaldo Umali, will be remembered as a shocking spectacle of lawmakers drooling over details of a love affair. A number of the felons summoned to that inquiry as resource persons are supposedly now under threat, and safely ensconced in the protective embrace of the Marines. A reward, as Senators Panfilo Lacson and Francis Pangilinan see it.
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