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PH officials vs the US Senate

A provision in the United States’ Fiscal Year 2020 State and Foreign Operations Appropriations prohibiting the entry of Philippine government officials found to be involved in the “wrongful imprisonment” of Sen. Leila de Lima has drawn various comments from key Philippine officials.

Sen. Tito Sotto thundered: “An affront to the Philippine Supreme Court [that] should be despised by all Filipinos!” Sen. Bong Go perorated: “I condemn this act of a handful of US senators for seeking to ban officials of the Philippine government involved in the detention of Sen. Leila de Lima. This is an affront to our sovereignty.”

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Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano surmised that “The US government might have prejudged the resolution even as the Philippines’ Supreme Court already upheld De Lima’s continued detention,” while Sen. Richard Gordon called it “An intrusion on the internal affairs of our country!”

Presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo virtually gave a lecture: “I’ve repeatedly explained it cannot be a wrongful detention because the senator went through two processes—one administrative, when the investigating prosecutor conducted proceedings to determine whether there exists a probable cause on the filing of an information and the prosecutor found the existence of one, and the other process is judicial.” Former congressman Rudy Fariñas echoed this line: “Her arrest was ordered by a judge and upheld by the Supreme Court.” Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra, meanwhile, said: “We will allow the legal staff of these senators to come and authorize them to go over the records and transcripts of the cases and observe the hearings so that they may enlighten their bosses.”

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The comments imply that the US Senate resolution is an intrusion into the Philippine judicial system. It is not. It does not say that De Lima’s detention is unlawful. It does not dictate or suggest to any Philippine government instrumentality or official what to do with De Lima or how to conduct the trial.

The resolution simply says that those involved in the “wrongful imprisonment” of De Lima will be denied entry into the United States. It is the sovereign right of a state to deny entry to any alien for whatever reason. As Sen. Panfilo Lacson correctly observed, no reason need be given by any sovereign state for denying entry to an alien. The same Philippine officials extremely perturbed by the US Senate resolution just shrugged off Hong Kong’s arbitrary denial of entry to former ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales and former foreign secretary Albert del Rosario.

It is apparent that the US senators were extremely careful in wording the resolution. Had they used the word “unlawful,” they would have strayed into the realms of Philippine law and the Philippine judicial system. Referring to De Lima’s imprisonment as “wrongful” gave the resolution the character of an opinion. US officials are entitled to their own opinion, just as President Duterte is entitled to his own opinion that Iceland’s abortion law is shameless and that Myanmar’s policy toward the Rohingya is genocide.

The opinion of US senators may not be as gratuitous and baseless as Philippine officials would like to think. The arrest and prosecution of De Lima was televised live by four TV networks, including CNN Philippines. Surely, the vast and high-tech intelligence network of the US State Department closely monitored the government’s actions against De Lima as they concern human rights, the United States being a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Besides, the integrity of the Supreme Court that Philippine officials zealously uphold has been assailed by civil society groups through the years. No less than former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo affirmed the subservience of the Supreme Court when she told President Duterte: “Most of all, I thank you that when you became President, you provided the atmosphere in which the Court had the freedom to acquit me of the trumped-up charges.”

In 2016, Mr. Duterte told reporters that “De Lima will rot in jail for involvement in the illegal drug trade.” The Supreme Court’s denial of her petition to overturn her detention is seen by many as another act of servility by the high tribunal. The US senators may be seeing our justice system under the Duterte administration the same way.

Oscar P. Lagman Jr. has been a keen observer of Philippine politics since the 1950s.

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TAGS: Leila de Lima, United States’ Fiscal Year 2020 State and Foreign Operations Appropriations, US resolution, Vicente Sotto III
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