Government News Analysis

Time to face the music, Leila

The woman who once made a living from sending people to jail, could soon be heading for jail herself. Former Philippine Justice Secretary and now embattled senator, Leila De Lima (photo), involuntarily took the first step on that journey on Friday when her old office, the Department of Justice (DOJ), filed criminal charges with a Muntinlupa Regional Trial Court, citing her with drug offences.

Those cases will be randomly assigned to other courts on Monday afternoon to be reviewed by a judge who will then determine whether the facts presented in the charges show clear probable cause – in other words, sufficient grounds for her arrest. And if they do, an arrest warrant could be issued right then and De Lima could be having supper in jail. First though, De Lima’s lawyers will submit a counter motion to the court to have the cases dismissed. But these are serious charges – bail cannot be granted for these offences which carry the penalty of life imprisonment.

The state’s main case, which was filed with the Muntinlupa Regional Trial Court, alleges De Lima’s involvement in the illegal-drugs trade carried out inside New Bilibid Prison (NBP) – the country’s largest penitentiary – while she was Justice Secretary. The charge, “Illegal Drug Trading,” is being brought under the 2002 Violation of the Comprehensive Drugs Act.

State prosecutors intend to prove that De Lima accepted money from drug-lord inmates of NBP while she allowed them to use the prison to conduct their narcotics operations.

Other consolidated cases against De Lima lodged with the Muntinlupa Court involving drug offences were filed by the Volunteers Against Crime and Corruption; the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI); former NBI deputy directors, Reynaldo Esmeralda and Ruel Lasala, and by NBP inmate, Jaybee Sebastian.

De Lima not only refutes the allegations, she contends they’re part of a slur campaign to deflect attention from her efforts to link Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte to extrajudicial killings carried out during his War on Drugs and going back to his time as the mayor of Davao City.

On hearing that the charges had been filed she said: “They are mistaken if they think my fight ends here. It has only begun. This is the kind of vindictive politics that we only expect from this regime… In the end, justice will prevail and we will be vindicated”.

In response, Justice Minister, Vitaliano Aguirre, said simply: “This is not the product of politics, this is the product of drug trading,” he said.

De Lima, as per usual, is having none of it and, as per usual, is adopting the role of the glorious martyr – as if Philippine politics needs any more of them. “If the loss of my freedom is the price I have to pay for standing up against the butchery of the Duterte regime, then it is a price I am willing to pay,” she said with her usual heroic overstatement.

But, of course, as you would expect under the present political climate in the Philippines, even a serious case like this can become a partisan issue. A group of Liberal Party senators put out this response to the charges. “… an arrest based on trumped-up charges is illegal … Furthermore, Senator De Lima was not able to file her counter-affidavit so we question whatever ruling the Department of Justice issued without hearing her side of the story”.

Two observations immediately arise from that. First, as this group of Liberal Party politicians hasn’t been privy to the evidence that supports the filings, they are not in a position to evaluate the quality of the charges and consequently equally incapable of assessing their legality. And anyway, they’re members of the legislative not the judicial branch of government; they don’t get to determine whether warrants are issued. Furthermore the judiciary is independent of government, and most people would like to keep it that way.

Secondly – without hearing her side of the story? Where have they been? We’ve heard nothing but her side of the story for months. It may not be in the form of a sworn affidavit, but she’s broadcasted it through the BBC, CNN, local networks and every other root and branch of her tame mainstream media until most of us could recite it in our sleep. In fact, we’ve all be waiting to hear the state’s side of the story, which thankfully we’re about to do.

Duterte, meanwhile, who will definitely have seen the evidence, believes that the cases are strong. His comment was brief and to the point. “She will have to face the music,” he said.

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