MANILA, Philippines – Justice Secretary Leila de Lima branded as “unfair” Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte’s criticism that she was all talk in going after rice smugglers.
On the sidelines of a Senate hearing into rice smuggling on Monday, February 3, De Lima responded to Duterte’s barb in his opening statement hinting that the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) was so slow in filing cases against rice smugglers.
Without naming De Lima, Duterte said, “The trouble with us in government is that we talk too much, act too slow, and do too little, don’t we?”
After Duterte left, the justice chief told reporters she no longer wants to trade blows with the Davao mayor but could not help comment on the criticism.
“Ayaw ko na patulan nang ganoon kasi baka sabihin nag-aangat ako ng sariling bangko, but I will state it na unfair po ‘yun na sabihin, dada lang kami nang dada sa gobyerno. May resulta lagi, you be the judge. Kung nababagalan siya, several ang reasons diyan. Maingat din dapat tayo, sinisiguro ng NBI na airtight ang kaso,” she said.
(I don’t want to respond because they might say I’m praising myself, but it is unfair to say that we in government are all talk. We have results, you be the judge. If he finds it slow, there are several reasons. We must be careful. NBI has to ensure that the case is airtight.)
While the NBI arrested alleged rice smuggler Davidson Bangayan after the hearing, the warrant was not in connection with rice smuggling but stemmed from a separate electricity pilferage case. The crime is bailable, and Bangayan posted a bail of P40,000 a few hours after his arrest.
Still, De Lima said the NBI is working to sue Bangayan for rice smuggling, citing the the task force it formed to fast-track the case. The NBI insists that Bangayan is big-time rice smuggler David Tan.
“There is no more doubt that David Bangayan is David Tan but his involvement in rice smuggling, we are gathering more evidence because we want to be sure. It’s just a matter of time. I will wait for the NBI. Before, they just had an anti-graft unit. Now, they already formed a task force,” De Lima said.
De Lima added that the NBI is “expanding” its investigation into rice smuggling by looking at smugglers other than “Bangayan aka David Tan.”
“The NBI is already verifying information. Are these people also big-time smugglers, bigger than Davidson Bangayan?” she said. “We are also looking at the others because there might be more of those rice smugglers.”
It is not only Duterte who has been urging the NBI to file cases against Bangayan and other alleged rice smugglers.
Senate agriculture and food committee chairperson Cynthia Villar called on the bureau to expedite the cases or else smuggling will persist.
“I think they will file a case. The mere fact they had him arrested, but on a different case, [shows they are determined]. I think they will be forced to file because there is a very strong pressure to do so,” Villar told reporters after the hearing.
Customs Commissioner John Philip Sevilla highlighted the gravity of the problem, saying the Philippines lost about P8.4 billion to rice smuggling in 2012. Poor farmers are the hardest hit. Once a top rice-exporting country, the Philippines is one of the major rice importers. Rice is the country’s primary staple.
‘Disturbing’ vs ‘Senator Duterte’
De Lima also took exception to Duterte’s statement that he will “gladly kill” Bangayan if he catches him smuggling rice in Davao.
“That is so disturbing. You cannot just do that. Rule of law tayo, ‘di ka lang basta-basta magpatay ng tao. I find it disturbing,” De Lima said. (We go by the rule of law. You cannot just have people killed.)
She also questioned the reactions of senators, many of whom even praised Duterte for his tough stance on criminals, called him “idol,” and mistakenly addressed him as “senator.”
“Karamihan lang ng mga tao tumawa lang o ngumiti lang. Shouldn’t we react to that? What is the proper reaction? Sabihin natin sa kanya na ‘di tama iyon.”
(Most of the people here just laughed or smiled. We should tell him that’s not right.)
De Lima said the effectiveness of Duterte’s threat remains to be seen. “Maybe to his mind that is the best deterrent, ‘yun ang dapat gawin, pero may batas tayo eh.” (Maybe to his mind that’s the best course of action but we have the law to follow.)
Villar had a different view. She said Duterte’s “definite statements” and “full confidence” helped convince senators to cite Bangayan in contempt.
“Sanay na kami kay Senator Duterte, ay Mayor Duterte. Sa akin, normal na iyon. I go to Davao often, nagbibida siya at may ganoong comments. Matigas siya, ‘pag sinabi niyang umalis kayo rito, umaalis talaga sila. Hindi na niya kailangang patayin.”
(We are used to Senator Duterte, I mean Mayor Duterte. To me, it’s normal. He’s tough. When he says leave, people really leave. He does not need to kill them.)
De Lima first clashed with Duterte when she was chairperson of the Commission on Human Rights. She then investigated him over extra-judicial killings in Davao City and his long-reported links to the Davao Death Squad.
Other rice smugglers in next hearing
Villar said that in the next hearing, her committee will question other personalities who have been linked to smuggling, and to a scheme using farmers’ cooperatives as dummies in rice importation.
She gave alleged rice broker Elizabeth Faustino, and alleged rice financier David Lim and his wife, Judyline Lim, an ultimatum to appear in the next hearing on February 25 or else the committee will also cite them in contempt.
Faustino’s lawyer said she was rushed to the hospital before the hearing, while the lawyer of the Lim couple sent notice that they had to go to the US to attend to an ailing relative.
Villar also directed the NBI to track down Leah Echeveria, who supposedly funded farmers’ cooperatives to participate in rice importation on behalf of big financiers. The Senate tried to summon her to the hearing but she was not found in her given address.
Even after citing Bangayan in contempt, Villar said he will still be invited to the next hearing.
“If there are questions, revelations, he has to be here. Ms Echeveria, Mr and Mrs Lim, there are many questions for them to answer, along with Ms Elizabeth Faustino. They have things to say and we will see if there’s a relationship among them.” – Rappler.com