A couple of days after Iglesia ni Cristo protesters vacated the intersection of Epifanio de los Santos Avenue and Shaw Boulevard, Justice Secretary Leila de Lima said something extraordinary. Or, rather, something most ordinary—she assured the public that the illegal detention case filed by three former members of the influential Iglesia ni Cristo against eight high church officials would follow the regular process. This is, of course, only as it should be.
But because, on the one hand, she had been accused by the protesters of giving “extraordinary attention” to the case, and, on the other, she was feared to have been sidelined by the supposed agreement between the government and the INC which ended the protest, her simple, matter-of-fact statement assumed outsize importance. It was read as De Lima standing her ground, or even as the Iglesia ni Cristo losing the battle for control of the legal situation.
It was, however, only as it should be. The regular process means that the case would first undergo what is called a preliminary investigation, by a prosecutor or panel of prosecutors. As Sen. Koko Pimentel earlier pointed out, the alleged offense involves individual persons, not the Iglesia ni Cristo as an institution. There is a definite procedure for investigating crimes allegedly committed by individuals.
But it needs to be said; precisely because the church is an influential institution, the Samson family was justified in filing the case with De Lima’s office herself, not with a local prosecutor. There is nothing unusual about this arrangement; it happens all the time. Indeed, the INC has been known to go straight to the DOJ on certain occasions, rather than to, say, the prosecutors’ office in Quezon City where its headquarters is located. No abuse of discretion; no unusual attention. It was as it should be.
The tumult that seized the capital region the last weekend, however, was precisely a protest about the regular process: The several thousand Iglesia ni Cristo members who took to the streets criticized De Lima for doing something that was not only a regular, indeed ordinary, part of her job, but something that the church itself had recourse to with her or with other justice secretaries in previous years.
That fact is worth emphasizing.
They wanted her to accept the preliminary National Bureau of Investigation recommendation, as though De Lima did not exercise full control and discretion over the NBI’s actions. They wanted her to ignore the petition filed by the Samson family (once privileged members of the Iglesia ni Cristo themselves), as though she did not have the ministerial duty to accept the complaint.
De Lima’s nemesis, Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte, whom she had investigated when she was chair of the Commission on Human Rights for grave abuses allegedly committed by the Davao Death Squad, has had nothing good to say about her since that encounter; but at the height of the street protests Duterte (a former prosecutor) offered his sympathies to De Lima. He did suggest that perhaps De Lima did not have to be the one to act on the complaint, because it was a sensitive issue with political consequences.
But the riposte to that can be seen a kilometer away:
De Lima had to act on the complaint, precisely because it was sensitive and political. Else, what is a secretary of justice for?
Now that the streets in Metro Manila are silent again (except for the unquiet desperation of millions of people navigating their way daily through the metropolis’ “gates of hell”), we can all breathe a sigh of relief. The law is being allowed to take its course. This is only as it should be.
We should take note that the Iglesia ni Cristo has also filed lawsuits against the Samsons, and that some of the high church officials implicated have also sued other parties. Again, that is only as it should be. The law is also meant to be society’s giant dispute resolution mechanism. Better that the disputes are examined under the cold light of the law, than in the reflected glare of thousands of cars, stuck on Edsa.
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