Yesterday, 10 October, was an auspicious day. It was the Double Ten, Taiwan National Day. In the island state there were street processions, lion dances and fireworks. It was a day of celebration. In the Philippines, it was decision day – the day Supreme Court justices decided whether Philippine Senator, Leila De Lima (photo, left), remains ‘behind bars’ or if she should be allowed to physically return to her seat in the Senate. The outcome was; she won’t be warming that seat for a while.
That decision was taken by the Supreme Court as it convincingly rejected De Lima’s lightweight, hope-and-a-prayer petition to invalidate the arrest warrant that became her ticket to a cell at the Philippine National Police (PNP) headquarters in Camp Crame in Quezon City, Manila on 24 February this year.
The justices’ decision was clear cut: nine voted to throw the petition out; six voted to uphold it. Among the six supporting De Lima was Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno; a close friend of the senator and, like De Lima in her previous role as Justice Secretary, an appointee of former president Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino’s Liberal Party administration.
Had Sereno recused herself in the interests of impartiality – as she should have done – the result would have been 9-5 in favour of the petition’s rejection. That wouldn’t have made any difference to the outcome, but it might have shown the chief justice – herself the subject of an impeachment complaint for violating the Constitution; corruption, high crimes and betraying the public trust – in a more favourable light. As it was she ran true to form.
De Lima had attempted to have the arrest warrant rescinded on a number of technical grounds – that the Muntinlupa Regional Trial Court (RTC) which issued it had overstepped its jurisdiction; that the RTC judge had abused her discretion in granting the arrest order; that the trial court judge had not considered all the evidence from the preliminary investigation before issuing the order; that De Lima’s constitutional rights had been violated. End of summary.
Naturally, members of the brigade opposed to President Rodrigo Duterte will protest this decision – and some already have. For example, Tindig Pilipinas – a coalition of Liberal Party and other opposition party interests, including minority blocs in both houses of Congress, plus human-rights activists – have prematurely determined that De Lima is the subject of a political vendetta.
They have no access to the pile of evidence that’s been gathered against her, of course, but apparently they don’t need to see that to know it’s false. Tindig Pilipinas is now calling on the public to protest the “unconscionable decision” of the high court.
In a statement which it released after the Supreme Court decision was announced, the group said this: “the international human rights community have repeatedly noted that Senator De Lima is a prisoner of conscience and called for her immediate release”. So let’s suspend all trials that haven’t been given prior approval by the international human rights community. That would really help the image of Philippine democratic institutions.
But 10 October marks another anniversary – one, we suspect De Lima and her supporters are unaware of. If they had been aware of it we wouldn’t have been at all surprised if they’d tried to exploit it – for 10 October is the anniversary of the canonisation of Maximilian Kolbe (photo). He was declared a saint on that day in 1982 by the late pope, John Paul II.
More to the point here, he was declared a martyr, and shortly after became the Patron Saint of, among other things, political prisoners – two very special demographics which De Lima would have us believe she’s a part.
Indeed, she’s sickeningly referred to herself as both a political prisoner and a martyr – and in just those terms. A few days prior to her February arrest on serious drugs-profiteering charges she said this: “I have long prepared myself to be the first political prisoner under this regime, because the criminal charges and prosecution are nothing less than a politically motivated act by the Duterte regime to clamp down on any vocal opposition against bad government. If the government wants to kill me as they have for long wanted, I am ready to die as a martyr for my stance”.
This woman, then, would put herself in the company of Maximilian Kolbe – a man who, in 1941, volunteered to die in place of a stranger at Auschwitz, the Nazi concentration camp in Kolbe’s native Poland. In Jesus’ words: “Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends”. Kolbe went one better; he gave his for someone he didn’t even know.
We can think of no one more dissimilar in person or in purpose to Kolbe than Senator De Lima. In fact, the only thing they have in common as far as we can see is that they share a calendar day in history. In terms of imprisonment, though, the Custodial Center at PNP headquarters is about as far from Auschwitz as it’s possible to get. Her living quarters may be simple, but they’ll be clean and private – a far cry from the lice and rat infested, overcrowded human zoo of the camp where Kolbe would suffer and die.
Furthermore, Kolbe was not a politician masquerading as a martyr. He was simply a friar who became a martyr. Not someone seeking to be thought of as one. He had no dreams of getting out of that prison camp and back into public life, which is precisely De Lima’s goal. That’s not how martyrs think and act. They die, calmly, for their beliefs – as Kolbe did; they don’t use stagecraft and melodrama for self-aggrandisement and self-promotion.
Kolbe took the place of a Polish soldier who along with nine others had been picked by the Schutzstaffel (or, SS) to starve to death in an underground cell. He was the last to succumb to his fate; but hunger didn’t kill him – a lethal injection of carbolic acid did. And for that he offered the executioner his arm.
The point is – and De Lima evidently is blissfully unaware of this – martyrs only become martyrs after their death. They don’t announce it or advertise it in advance. In fact, they’re not the ones to determine their martyrdom; that judgement is made later – in Kolbe’s case, 41 years after his execution. Reality check; there are no ‘instant martyrs’; no ‘premeditated martyrs’.
Nor are there any ‘potential martyrs’; or ‘trainee martyrs’; or ‘would-be’ or ‘wanabee martyrs’. Those who declare their ambitions to be martyred are false martyrs. They do that – as De Lima has – for effect; to gain sympathy; to raise the political profile and, particularly in her case, to attack the country’s president.
And so, there are people like Maximilian Kolbe and people like Leila De Lima. And as far as martyrdom is concerned they’re as far removed from each other as the hell of Auschwitz is from the virtual house-arrest-type arrangement – with all its dietary and exercise facilities – that she’s enjoying, by stark comparison, in Quezon City.
Here’s something else she reportedly said: “It’s my honour to be jailed for the principles I am fighting for” – such an honour, apparently, that she can’t wait to divest herself of it. Her abortive petition – junked by the justices on the anniversary of Maximilian Kolbe’s entry into the canon of saints – had called for her immediate release from detention.
But here’s the other thing. Kolbe’s ‘crime’ was that he published anti-Nazi pamphlets and hid Jews in his monastery. De Lima is accused of pocketing PHP10 million worth of illegal-drug profits while working as the head of the country’s justice department – drugs, ironically, allegedly channeled from the country’s largest penitentiary, New Bilibid Prison (NBP), over which De Lima had a supervisory role. The Bureau of Corrections which administers NBP comes directly under the justice department.
So 10 October is definitely a day to remember. It’s a day to honour one of the greatest martyrs of the Roman Catholic Church, and a day to distinguish his selfless act of sacrifice from the self-serving politics of a woman who finds herself custodially restrained because she has questions to answer concerning her alleged gross participation in the Philippines illegal-drugs trade.
Sometimes, as here, the confluence of events on a date can offer a deeper perspective of those events. It can separate the real from the imaginary; the profound from the trivial. It can shed light on what’s important from what’s irrelevant.
No-one expects members of the Philippine Senate to martyr themselves – for any cause. That’s ridiculous and childish. However, there is an expectation from the electorate for a certain degree of honesty – dare we ask, maturity – from those there to represent them. That same electorate has also had quite enough of the dramatics and the posturing of Liberal Party politician who treat the people like a dumb audience there to be entertained or outraged – moved in some way by their performances and emotional outbursts.
So, the Filipino people aren’t looking for martyrs – and certainly, not self-professed ones; they’re looking for men and women who can do the jobs they were elected to do. They also expect that those who’re charged with committing crimes against the state – whoever they are – should be deal with swiftly by the courts.
De Lima’s case needs to be scheduled via the fast track; not allowed to drag along like so many do. That’s not justice in any sense; that’s the stalling of justice, a practice that’s made a complete mockery of the Philippine justice system. And anyway, the sooner De Lima is able to establish her innocence, the sooner she’ll be able to get back to her Senate seat.