Hostaged inside Camp Crame
The hostage-taking and “near-death experience” of former senator Leila de Lima on Sunday has highlighted serious concerns about her security, and renewed calls for her immediate release from the Philippine National Police custodial center at Camp Crame. De Lima has been detained in the facility since February 2017, even if she has yet to be convicted of what many see as trumped-up drug charges brought against her by the Duterte administration.
According to PNP chief Gen. Rodolfo Azurin Jr., three inmates—Abu Sayyaf members Idang Susukan, Feliciano Sulayao Jr., and Arnel Cabintoy—had grabbed and stabbed a prison guard who was distributing breakfast in the facility’s open area. Susukan and Cabintoy were shot dead, while Sulayao found his way into De Lima’s cell and held her hostage.
Sulayao, who had asked for a Hummer, a helicopter, and media coverage during negotiations, was later shot dead by Police Col. Mark Pespes.
Following the incident, Azurin said they were “studying and re-evaluating existing policies and guidelines pertaining to security,” and starting an “administrative investigation to determine the culpability of the [PNP custodial center] commander,” Lt. Col. Patrick Ramillano, who was relieved from his post.
De Lima, meanwhile, recounted how Sulayao barged into her cell while she was praying the rosary and threatened her with a knife or ice pick, telling her that since his two companions were dead, he might as well die and take the former senator with him. She was manhandled, dragged from and back into her room, hand and foot bound, and blindfolded, with the sharp object pressed on her chest, De Lima said. Except for a nagging pain in her chest, the former senator said she is doing fine.
While the police—particularly Pespes—have to be commended for their quick and decisive response to the crisis, frenzied speculations on how the hostage-taking could have happened at all have laid doubts on Azurin’s claim that De Lima was not the target in the incident. Questions have been raised on how Sulayao found his way to De Lima’s detention cell, which was separated by walls, chicken wire, and a metal gate from the quarters of other high-profile detainees, including the Abu Sayyaf bandits.
Friends and allies of De Lima also spoke of how restrictive security protocols are when it comes to the former lawmaker’s guests, that it seemed strange that dangerous inmates would inexplicably get easy access to her. Recall that the PNP had required United States legislators—who were already here—to get a court order before they could visit De Lima in August. The police also barred guests from personally greeting the former lawmaker on her birthday, even if the personalities involved included prominent former officials, including former Supreme Court senior associate justice Antonio Carpio, former ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales, Sen. Risa Hontiveros, Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman, former Senate minority leader Franklin Drilon, and former senator Mar Roxas.
So why the sudden laxity in protocol that allowed Sulayao to breach several layers of security and get into De Lima’s quarters?, people asked.
The timing, they noted, is also suspect. Why did the life-threatening incident happen now, when the government’s case against De Lima was crumbling after several prosecution witnesses have recanted their statements linking the former senator to the alleged drug deals, and citing threats and coercion from former Duterte officials for their perjured statements?
Was the hostage-taking part of a plot to silence one of the staunchest critics of the previous administration, who had called out the extrajudicial killings in former Davao mayor Rodrigo Duterte’s turf when she chaired the Commission on Human Rights?
The answers to those questions may not be forthcoming, but they underscore the need for the courts to review De Lima’s case before she is permanently silenced by her enemies. With so many judges recusing themselves from the case, the trial has proceeded at snail’s pace, with important witnesses, including the accused, still to take the stand more than five years since the charges were lodged.
While President Marcos Jr. has said that he does not intend to intervene in cases already in court, he has the authority to direct the prosecutors to allow judicial processes to take their natural and most expeditious course, instead of them engaging in dilatory tactics. Given the threats to De Lima’s safety, the plea by her lawyers to transfer her to a more secure facility or put her under house or hospital arrest, as well as granting her bail considering the retractions of key witnesses, should be considered.
Keeping De Lima safe and able to access legal remedies for her case is to the best interest of the new administration. Aside from showcasing its independence from the blood-soaked policy of the previous dispensation, it would prove to the world that political persecution has no place in our justice system.
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