Government News Analysis

De Lima’s arrest evasion

By 10 o’clock this morning Philippine Senator Leila De Lima – the woman charged with profiteering from illegal-drug sales – will be arrested inside the Philippine Senate and taken to a place of detention to await trial. It is the culmination of months of speculation and comes at the end of a long night of what seemed like interminable discussions over how and when the arrest should be made.

Last Friday, the Department of Justice filed criminal charges against De Lima and two others with a Regional Trial Court in Manila, citing her with illegal drug trading under the 2002 Violation of the Comprehensive Drugs Act. A warrant for her arrest was issued and was due to be served by the Criminal Investigation and Detention Group (CIDG), the arresting force, last night. These charges are extremely serious – so serious in fact that they’re non-bailable and carry a life prison term if she’s convicted.

None of that, apparently, concerns the powers that be in the Philippine Senate. Protection of one of their own, it would seem, is of far greater importance and every effort was made to prevent the CIDG officers in making the arrest.

Apparently, according to some arcane Senate ‘policy’ – it’s not even a rule and was specially re-crafted to protect De Lima – the police cannot simply arrest a sitting senator inside the Senate. Even with an arrest warrant – duly authorised by a judge; for this one by Judge Juanita T. Guerrero – the matter first had to be discussed with De Lima, her Liberal Party support group and her legal counsel and the whole process has to be coordinated with the Senate’s Sergeant-at-Arms. And, throughout that process, the police were denied all access to her. The nearest they got eventually was the Sergeant-at-Arms office.

In short, with Senate help, De Lima was able to “negotiate” the terms of her arrest. And the outcome of that long-winded negotiation was that she would retire for the night in the Philippine Senate and allow herself to be apprehended this morning. And this is why she was able to do that.

According to ‘Senate guidelines’ set out by Senate president, Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel III, the police would not be admitted beyond the main entrance to the building. “We’re in charge of security within our facility,” he said. All the police could do was to hand over the warrant to the Sergeant-at-Arms who then took it to De Lima and asked whether or not she intended to comply. Meanwhile, the police had to remain outside the building.

Theoretically, De Lima could stay in the Senate for ever – like Australian WikiLeaks journalist, Julian Assange, who’s been holed up in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London for the past four years. In effect, then, the Senate has given her diplomatic immunity – a privilege of exemption normally only afforded to consular officials – emissaries, attachés and the like of foreign governments. And so, in the Philippines now we can add members of the country’s political elite to that list.

Furthermore, the Senate president has created a sovereign state within a state – one not subject to the laws of the Philippine Republic. Arrest can now be resisted there with impunity. The national police force apparently has no power inside its hallowed halls; Pimentel has placed it beyond their jurisdiction.

This is like a version of the old Kowloon Walled City in Hong Kong – a piece of land that remained part of Mainland China throughout the 99-year lease of the remainder of the territory to Britain. It became an enclave of thieves and other criminals and the Royal Hong Kong Police were prohibited from entering there.

But, apart from anything else, it makes a mockery of Article III, Section 1 of the 1987 Philippine Constitution which guarantees all citizens “equal protection of the laws”. It doesn’t extend ‘special protection’ to either senators or members of the Liberal Party which is precisely what happened with De Lima last night.

In Medieval times in England, thieves, bandits and worse could escape the law by seeking sanctuary in a church or monastery. There they couldn’t be pursued or arrested by law officers. So, effectively, an odd custom that took place the best part of 1,000 years ago is now being practiced in the upper chamber of the Philippine legislature. If a bar in Ermita did that its owner would be charged with aiding and abetting a fugitive. You would expect members of the country’s legislature, if anything, to be held to a higher standard. But no such charge, of course, will be laid against the senate. Its purpose is far loftier.

According to “Koko”: “Our main concern is her safety and security. Second concern is that she continues to function as a senator”. Really? A woman whom it’s alleged funded her senate seat bid from the proceeds of illegal drugs should be allowed to continue functioning as a senator? And these are the people who make the country’s laws?

It’s also his considered opinion that it would be ill advised to have the subject of a warrant arrested at night – presumably, another reason for giving her overnight board in the Senate. In the interests of safety he contends daytime is more reliable. Again, we have to wonder at his intellectual grasp of that subject. If someone wants to do De Lima harm, there will be as many opportunities in daylight as there will be after dark.

But does Pimentel’s code for senate arrests apply to all members of the chamber, or just to De Lima? For example, let’s imagine for a moment that an arrest warrant has been issued against a senator who’s charged with terrorist-bombing offences. Let’s say he takes the De Lima option and seeks ‘political asylum’ in the Philippine Senate building. Presumably, he too would be able to call the shots and decide the hour of his arrest. Presumably, also like De Lima, he’d be given the opportunity to broadcast his political message to the world. He, like her, could use the Senate as a platform to spew hate speech and incite insurrection. And all courtesy of the people’s representatives. And probably on the people’s dime as well.

And De Lima may well have already done that because according to a number of social media postings happening now, the “mob” is gathering to assault the Senate in a further attempt to prevent the CIDG from arresting the alleged drugs queen. That could turn into a dangerous conflict in which people could get hurt. And if that happens, Pimentel and those who supported his ridiculous guidelines should be held to account. But that won’t happen. As they repeatedly show and tell us, they just make the laws, they’re not responsible for their consequences.

If ever we need to illustrate the concept of ‘one rule for them, one rule for us’ the Senate-contrived Mexican standoff between CIDG officers and De Lima would be hard to better. It shows us, in stark relief, how the country’s political elite can demand special treatment – and get it.

But what Pimentel has also succeeded in doing is to allow a simple police matter – the arrest of De Lima, which is going to happen anyway – to escalate into a full-blown international media orgy. He has played right into De Lima’s hands, bringing shame and ridicule onto the Philippine Senate in the process. And he’s also ratcheted up the potential for violence by giving De Lima’s supporters time to turn out an army of protestors ready to storm the Senate.

“Koko” is the highest-ranking official in the government; he’s next in line to the presidency after the vice president. His role, through many functions, is to ensure the smooth running of the Senate. And none of that involves handing out ‘get-out-of-jail-free’ cards.

On another note, also last night, once again the world was entreated to a bungled law-enforcement operation in the Philippines. What should have been a straight forward arrest turned into a five-hour-plus media pantomime in which no one seemed to know what was going on. While across in Pangasinan one of De Lima’s two co-accused – Ronnie Dayan, the senator’s former driver-lover – was arrested at his home without incident, efforts to get her into custody looked like an episode of Keystone Cops meets the Muppet Show. The cast included De Lima, CIDG officers and banks of media.

The early part of the farce involved the CIDG, armed with the arrest warrant, motoring from their base at Camp Crame to Parañaque and De Lima’s home. Apparently, according to their “intelligence” that was where she would be. The 24-kilometre journey right through the thick of Manila’s slug-paced Thursday night traffic took the best part of an hour.

But De Lima wasn’t there. She was holding court and having yet another emotional moment in the Philippine Senate on Roxas Boulevard in Pasay. The CIDG convoy turned round, made the 20-minute trip back via the Metro Manila Skyway, parked up in the Senate car park and tried to figure out their next move. Then the tortuous to-ing and fro-ing in the Senate building occupied the next several hours.

And all this played out online and was beamed around the world.

This was gross mismanagement by the police. They have the power of arrest and they should have enforced the warrant – even if it meant calling for reinforcements to do so. That would have been far preferable to the state of affairs this morning. Now they will probably require riot units to control the mob which Pimentel has facilitated by giving them time to organise.

We await the next development in this saga. What we fear right now is that things could turn ugly when De Lima is led away from the Senate – that’s of course assuming that she keeps her word this time and accepts arrest. We’re fairly sure she had tried to delay being detained until after the weekend. That could well have been her position during those long negotiations last night.

The reason for that is that Saturday marks the 31st anniversary of the 1986 People Power Revolution and forces opposed to President Rodrigo Duterte are using the event to stage a mass demonstration in the capital, Manila. De Lima, a voluble critic of the president, ideally would want to be there in her usual position at centre stage.

Meanwhile, the mainstream media this morning will be running the story above the fold, around the planet. Interviews which De Lima undoubtedly gave throughout the night will show her as the victim of a callous regime and there will be scant reference to the offences with which she’s been charged. No doubt too, members of the foreign press will be flying into Manila to cover the story first hand – again most probably at De Lima’s invitation. Even now she won’t be going quietly, and she will likely delay as long as she can to ensure maximum foreign coverage. The foreign press will certainly be there in force to cover Saturday’s mass demo.

We shall be following this story as it continues to unfold.