De Lima: We should review doctrine of presidential immunity

MANILA, Philippines – Senator Leila de Lima on Thursday, September 15, said it is time to review the rules on presidential immunity, saying the public needs to have a “remedy” should “criminal” leaders get elected.

"Maybe it's time to revisit or rethink that doctrine. This is just hypothethical. I hope I don't get misunderstood, I hope they don't get mad," she told reporters in Filipino after the 3rd hearing on the spate of drug-related killings.

De Lima, President Rodrigo Duterte’s fiercest critic, has launched a probe into the extrajudicial killings, which have caught the eye of both local and international rights advocates and media.

De Lima said the rationale behind executive immunity is to ensure that the President does not get distracted by lawsuits.

But for the sake of “academic discussion,” the senator asked: what would happen to the public if an elected president turns out to be a "rapist" or "mass murderer"?

“Paano na kung meron nahalal na pangulo na mass murderer pala, serial killer, rapist, etcetera? Hindi naman ho siguro, again this is hypothetical, di ko ho tinutukoy dito si President Duterte,” she said.

(What if somebody is elected president, and he turns out to be a mass murderer, serial killer, rapist, etcetera? Maybe not, again this is hypothetical, I am not referring to President Duterte.)

For her, it is not right that executive immunity would be used to protect a criminal leader.

“Di naman siguro tama, dahil sa presidential immunity, kung mapatunayan na isang pangulo ay ganun, may criminal mind, because of that doctrine di siya makakasuhan,” she said.

(It does not seem right that just because of presidential immunity, if a president is proven to have a criminal mind, that just because of that doctrine, he could not be charged.)

The senator clarified she is not insinuating anything, even as she said this after the damning testimonies of Edgar Matobato against President Duterte before the Senate on Thursday. Matobato is a self-confessed hitman of the Davao Death Squad, which has been linked to Duterte.

Asked if the allegations against Duterte merit an impeachable offense, De Lima refused to comment to avoid being “misunderstood.”

“Just look at the Constitution. What are the grounds cited there? This is academic discussion again. I dont want to be misunderstood because I don’t have such agenda,” De Lima said.

The 1987 Constitution is not explicit on executive immunity, unlike the 1973 Constitution, which contains a specific provision guaranteeing the president’s immunity, Bernas wrote in the Inquirer.

The Supreme Court, however, has settled the president’s immunity from suits in a number of cases. –

Camille Elemia

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