MANILA, Philippines – Two critics of President Rodrigo Duterte in the Senate slammed Senate President Aquilino Pimentel III for rejecting their request to place a witness under Senate custody.
Senators Antonio Trillanes IV and Leila De Lima expressed disappointment over Pimentel's decision not to place under Senate custody Edgar Matobato, the self-confessed hitman in the so-called Davao Death Squad, who appeared at a Senate committee on justice hearing on Thursday.
Trillanes, one of Duterte's critics since the 2016 campaign, accused Pimentel – ally and party mate of Duterte in the PDP-Laban – of being partisan.
"It was heartless and reeks of political maneuvering to cover for President Duterte," Trillanes said in a text message.
For Trillanes, Pimentel has no power to trump any ruling made by a Senate panel.
"I am very disappointed with the decision of Senate President Pimentel. It fact, he doesn't even have the power to overrule a ruling by any Senate committee," he said.
De Lima echoed this view, as she is not keen on backing down just yet. She maintained it is not the Senate President's prerogative to grant protective custody to a witness.
De Lima said she is withdrawing the request before Pimentel. She would let the committee on justice and human rights, which spearheads the probe into extrajudicial killings, decide on the matter instead.
"The grant of protective custody, like the power to cite in contempt, is a Senate power, not a prerogative of the Senate President,” she said in a statement.
She added: “It is my submission that the Committee on Justice and Human Rights, as a standing committee of the Senate, has the authority to grant protective custody to a witness testifying before it, on behalf of the Senate as a whole.”
In explaining the decision, Pimentel said there was no Senate rule to justify the need for a protective custody. He added the testimony has no relevance to the investigation.
“I intend to run the Senate based on rules. I’ve denied the request for protective custody of the witness Matobato because there is no Senate rule to justify it,” Pimentel said.
“There’s even no showing that his life or safety is threatened. Worse, the witness’ testimony is not even relevant to the resolution being investigated,” he added.
But De Lima opposed this view, expressing disappointment over the ruling.
“I am perplexed, disturbed, and extremely disappointed with the Senate President’s refusal to grant protective custody to Edgar Matobato,” she said.
While she admitted that the grant of protection is indeed not mandated by the rules of the chamber, the senator claimed it is a long-standing practice “in any legislative body in the world.”
De Lima said it is the Senate’s “automatic obligation” to protect witnesses who have “entrusted their security” to the chamber. She called it “highly irregular” that the chamber failed to perform its job.
“It is therefore highly irregular and incomprehensible for the Senate to be unable to perform this obligation to a witness whom it has invited on the basis of the vital information only he can provide to an inquiry conducted in aid of legislation,” De Lima said.
In fact, she said, she's having difficulty look for previous instances wherein the Senate refused protective custody to a witness who needed it.
“We are even hard put in searching for a precedent where protective custody was refused to a witness who needed it. We cannot now pretend that the explosive testimony of Edgar Matobato fails to meet precedents on previous grants of protection,” De Lima said.
Irrelevant? It’s ‘vital’
De Lima maintained the witness provided the Senate “vital information” to determine the “whole complexity” of Duterte’s fight against drugs.
Citing Matobato’s testimony, De Lima said what is happening in the country happened before in Davao City.
“His testimony raises the legitimate question of whether the DDS has anything to do or is in fact involved in the nationwide War on Drugs, at least insofar as the aspect of extra-judicial and vigilante killings are concerned,” she said.– Rappler.com
Camille Elemia is Rappler's lead reporter for media, disinformation, 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 email@example.com