MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – Detained Senator Leila de Lima hit back at Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II for blaming her for "every catastrophe" that befalls the Duterte administration.
De Lima made the statement after Aguirre claimed she was partly to blame for the deaths of at least 37 people in the Resorts World Manila attack as she gave the opinion, as justice secretary, that the Philippine Economic Zone Authority (PEZA) has the power to regulate fire safety in casinos instead of the Bureau of Fire Protection (BFP).
De Lima clarified this, saying her March 2014 opinion only reiterated the provisions of Republic Act (RA) 7916 or the Special Economic Zone Act of 1995, which gives PEZA jurisdiction over PEZA-registered establishments in terms of implementing the National Building Code and the Fire Code.
"All I did was affirm RA 7916 as it was passed by Congress and implemented for 15 years before my incumbency, as any Secretary of Justice who seriously abides by her oath to uphold the law and the Constitution would do," De Lima said in a statement.
In fact, she said she did not specify casinos in her legal opinion, adding that a casino has to be PEZA-registered in a special economic zone before it can claim to be under PEZA and not the BFP.
"The DOJ Legal Opinion that I issued in 2014 was merely an affirmation of the law. To be statutorily precise about it – a habit that seems to escape Secretary Aguirre's legal training – the legal opinion did not specifically mention casinos as exempt from the jurisdiction of the BFP. Instead, it mentioned PEZA-registered establishments located in Special Economic Zones," De Lima said.
"If the casino is not a PEZA-registered establishment in a Special Economic Zone, then the BFP has authority to conduct fire inspection and issue a Fire Safety Insurance Certificate (FSIC), even if the establishment is a gambling casino," she added.
De Lima also denounced Aguirre for blaming her for every crisis. The DOJ chief had also blamed other Liberal Party members and Duterte critics for the Marawi City siege, insinuating they connived with the Maute Group.
"My message to Secretary Aguirre is this: Just do your job. Stop blaming me. After some time, your own excuses of blaming me for every catastrophe that befalls this administration just won't wash with the public anymore, except with your fanatic supporters whose numbers are quickly dwindling by the day because of no one else's fault, but your and your boss' pathetic obsession with me," De Lima said.
Aguirre, for his part, has reversed his predecessor's opinion – something that De Lima said is a violation of the law.
Aguirre, in his opinion, said the BFP has the sole authority to implement the Fire Code in ecozones.
"Thus, [PEZA] cannot conduct fire safety inspection on enterprises duly registered with it as well as those within the zones nor can it issue Fire Safety Inspection Certificates. The implementation/enforcement of the Fire Code of the Philippines in the ecozones shall remain to be the sole responsibility of the Bureau of Fire Protection," Aguirre said in his opinion dated June 7.
But De Lima said this is a violation of the law, adding RA 7916 has been in operation since 1995 and it has to be amended first before Aguirre implements what he wants.
"Secretary Aguirre purportedly has since rescinded the 2014 DOJ Legal Opinion and single-handedly gave BFP jurisdiction over PEZA-registered establishments and Special Economic Zones on matters of fire safety and prevention, including enforcement of the Fire Code. In my humble opinion, this could be a categorical violation of RA 7916 and its Implementing Rules and Regulations," the senator said.
"But in so far as the Constitution is concerned, RA 7916 must first be amended before Secretary Aguirre chooses to ignore it and do as he pleases," she added.
Why only now?
In attacking De Lima's 2014 legal opinion, Aguirre said RA 7916 was an old law enacted in 1995. RA 9514 or The Fire Code should be the prevailing law as it was enacted more recently in 2008.
"Nakalagay doon sa batas na very clear na it is the Bureau of Fire Protection ang magpapatupad at mag-e-enforce ng batas ng Fire Code of the Philippines, under Republic Act 9514, enacted in 2008, samantalang 'yung PEZA law ay enacted 1995. Kaya talagang doon sa repealing clause, lahat ng inconsistent na provisions ay dapat repealed na," Aguirre said, referring to RA 9514.
(The law is clear that it is the Bureau of Fire Protection that should enforce the Fire Code of the Philippines under Republic Act 9514, enacted in 2008, while the PEZA law was enacted in 1995. In the repealing clause, it said all inconsistent provisions should be repealed.)
"Kaya because of that grievous mistake, talagang malaking pagkakamali, hindi na-enforce properly nitong Resorts World ang pagpapatupad ng Fire Code of the Philippines," he added.
(Because of that grievous mistake, it was really a huge mistake, Resorts World did not properly enforce the Fire Code of the Philippines.)
RA 7916, however, is still in effect and has not been repealed by Congress.
De Lima then questioned why Aguirre is questioning it only now, when it was the same issue that hounded the House Technology Industries (HTI) fire at the Cavite Export Processing Zone just 4 months ago on February 1, 2017. (READ: DOLE contradicts PEZA: Company in Cavite fire violated standards)
"Secretary Aguirre was already 7 months into being Secretary of Justice then. He himself might have been caught sleeping at his post in the past 4 months after the HTI fire and before the Resorts World incident, or wasting his taxpayer-paid time filing bogus cases against me," she said. – Rappler.com
Camille Elemia is Rappler's lead reporter for media, disinformation issues, and democracy. She won an ILO award in 2017. She received the prestigious Fulbright-Hubert Humphrey fellowship in 2019, allowing her to further study media and politics in the US. Email firstname.lastname@example.org