Agog and aghast
To borrow a line from a popular musical, they are agog, they are aghast. The Duterte officialdom is in an uproar over the news that US President Donald Trump has signed his government’s 2020 spending bill into law—and the measure carries an extraordinary provision: that the US Secretary of State is authorized to bar the entry into the United States of foreign government officials involved in the “wrongful imprisonment” of Sen. Leila de Lima.The provision, under the “Anti-Kleptocracy and Human Rights” section, directed the Secretary of State to apply subsection (c) “to foreign government officials about whom the Secretary has credible information have been involved in the wrongful imprisonment of: (1) Mustafa Kassem, an American citizen imprisoned by the Government of Egypt and whose health is failing; and (2) Senator Leila de Lima who was arrested in the Philippines in 2017…”
Subsection (c) refers to the 2016 Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, which sanctions those “responsible for extrajudicial killings, torture or other gross violations of internationally recognized human rights committed against individuals in any foreign country who seek to expose illegal activity carried out by government officials.” Sanctions include the denial or revocation of a US visa and a freeze on assets in the United States. It was under this provision that Democrat senators Patrick Leahy and Richard Durbin pushed for the inclusion in the spending bill of the amendment to sanction those involved in the “politically motivated imprisonment” of De Lima.
Durbin was also one of five senators who, in April, filed in the US Senate Resolution 142 condemning the Philippine government for its continued detention of De Lima and calling for her immediate release. The resolution, unanimously approved last Dec. 11 by the US Senate foreign relations committee, described De Lima as “a prisoner of conscience, detained solely on account of her political views and the legitimate exercise of her freedom of expression,” and condemned the Duterte administration for “its role in state-sanctioned extrajudicial killings by police and other armed individuals as part of the ‘war on drugs.’” The “extrajudicial killings perpetrated by the government of the Philippines as part of the government-directed antidrug campaign present the foremost human rights challenge in the Philippines,” it added.
Needless to say, the Duterte administration has been sputtering in outrage at these official acts by the US government, especially the proviso in the budget law that practically puts the question of the De Lima case in the forefront of US-Philippine relations. Presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo branded it as “brazen” interference in the Philippines’ domestic affairs and Durbin and Leahy as “imperious, uninformed and gullible,” Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said he was “shockingly disappointed,” while Senate President Tito Sotto decried the move as “an affront to our Supreme Court.” These were the same people, of course, who had no second thoughts speaking up in defense of the sovereign right of Chinese authorities in Hong Kong to ban Filipino citizens not to their liking from entering that territory—specifically, former ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales and former foreign secretary Albert del Rosario, on account of their suit against Beijing.
Perhaps Malacañang is puzzled as to why Trump, who in 2017 had talked of his “great relationship” with President Duterte and had praised him for doing an “unbelievable job on the drug problem,” would now sign a law that takes the side of Mr. Duterte’s chief nemesis. What sorcery is this that De Lima—still the touchiest, most radioactive subject for Mr. Duterte and his partisans, causing them to erupt in bile and vitriol every time her case is mentioned—would end up getting some of the most powerful members of the US Senate, and even the White House itself, to rally to her cause?
Then again, perhaps Trump has his hands full desperately shoring up his position as his impeachment trial looms, and so can’t be bothered now to come to the aid of a kindred populist leader. To be clear, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has yet to identify who exactly will be covered by the entry ban, but having gone this far for De Lima, the US government will likely look closely at the list of personalities the senator said were involved in her political persecution (among others—President Duterte, Panelo, former House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez, former justice secretary Vitaliano Aguirre, Solicitor General Jose Calida, Public Attorneys’ Office chief Persida Acosta, former congressmen Rey Umali and Rudy Fariñas, and propagandists Mocha Uson, Sass Rogando Sasot and RJ Nieto).
Who will end up on Pompeo’s “naughty” list? Some people must now be facing the new year with great anxiety and dread.
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