Leila de Lima

[Rappler Investigates] When China, Leila, Sara conspire

Chay F. Hofileña

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[Rappler Investigates] When China, Leila, Sara conspire

Marian Hukom/Rappler

'Former senator Leila de Lima was cleared of all drug charges, Vice President Sara Duterte quit as education secretary, and the Philippine government tripped over itself'

Almost without fail, whenever I am away or I go on a break, breaking news happens. This recent short vacation, which ended today, June 27, was no exception. Former senator and justice secretary Leila de Lima was cleared of all drug charges, Vice President Sara Duterte quit as education secretary and deputy of the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict, and the Philippine government tripped over itself over a “misunderstanding” – no, an “aggressive and illegal use of force” by China Coast Guard (CCG) personnel – on Ayungin Shoal. 

By Tuesday, June 25, the Philippine Navy’s Seaman First Class Underwater Operator Jeffrey Facundo confirmed during a Senate hearing what had already been reported in the news. Facundo was the soldier who was injured and whose evacuation was delayed because the CCG punctured the Navy’s rigid hull inflatable boats and seized disassembled rifles. Like barbaric pirates at sea, the CCG descended upon the Navy soldiers who were on a resupply mission to the BRP Sierra Madre stationed in Ayungin Shoal.

But it took a full week for Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro to correct early statements made by other officials who were either obviously misinformed about what really transpired and were just trying to wing it to a fault, or were simply and plainly clueless. Read more about that dreadful incident and two other takes on it:

GOOD NEWS. While this issue continues to rage, there were positive vibes on the De Lima front. After being tormented by her antagonist Rodrigo Duterte, resulting in almost seven years of lost freedom, she and her co-accused were told by Muntinlupa City Judge Gener Gito on freedom day, June 24, that they can now “enjoy their unmitigated freedom.” Read this explainer by justice reporter Jairo Bolledo on why the court acquitted De Lima in her last drug case.

The acquittal from this third and last charge – conspiracy to commit drug trading inside the New Bilibid Prison purportedly to raise funds for her 2016 senatorial bid – was bittersweet. It showed how politicized and polluted the judicial system had become under the autocratic Duterte, even as it appears to have self-corrected sans the political pressures and interference post-Duterte. 

Courts are supposed to decide on the basis of facts and evidence, but clarity of judgment can be clouded and compromised by legitimate fears of losing jobs, physical threats, and even death. Phone calls and relayed messages from the powers-that-be can have a paralyzing effect on the less courageous and principled. 

Judge Gito, who decided De Lima’s case, has impressive credentials and had been recognized in 2019 for being the “most outstanding regional trial court judge in the Philippines.” For sure, the retractions by key witnesses were instrumental in De Lima’s acquittals. Given the evidence presented, he could not have decided her case otherwise. 

But the cynics will say you can never be sure because in this country, politics always seems to trump justice. And when it doesn’t, it’s short of miraculous.

A more spiritual and serene De Lima has emerged from her detention center. As a former justice secretary, you would expect her to extract accountability from those who unjustly wronged her. The desire for vengeance might be there – it is, after all, a natural human reaction – but she declared that she has forgiven her wrongdoers. Except Duterte. 

Watch Jairo’s exclusive interview with her, where she says that she will only have full vindication when those who have wronged her are made to account for them. You can also read the story: Leila de Lima: ‘You failed to break me. I’m still standing.’ She gives fair warning to those who forced her detention.

SARA’S DEPARTURE. Another woman who hit the news was Vice President Sara Duterte. No, it didn’t really come as a surprise as there had long been loose talk about it – ’twas really just a question of timing

Historically, because our multiparty system allows various political parties to field candidates during elections, winners from the opposite sides of the fence can end up having to co-exist and trying hard to work together amiably as president and vice president. According to Palace reporter Dwight de Leon, post-EDSA, there had been five prior instances of vice presidents resigning from the Cabinet due to policy, if not political, differences. 

In the case of Sara Duterte and President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., their belonging to the same Uniteam alliance – a coalition of Marcos’ Partido Federal ng Pilipinas and the ruling Lakas-CMD – was no guarantee of eternal marriage. There were early indications of a crack in the political marriage when Sara resigned from Lakas-CMD in May 2023 after joining the party in late 2021. She cited “political toxicity” and “execrable political power play” back then, in apparent reference to the demotion of her ally Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in the House of Representatives. The unbearable-ness of sticking it out with the administration would only escalate. You can track it here

There have been countless speculations about the real reasons for leaving the Marcos Cabinet – poor showing at the Department of Education on account of Sara not really being an educator, consolidation of the Dutertes’ political power (oh yes, not one, but three Dutertes are supposedly eyeing a Senate run in 2025), and strategic play that could shake the foundation of the Marcos administration. Only a thread of civility binds the country’s top two leaders. – Rappler.com

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Chay F. Hofileña

Chay Hofileña is editor of Rappler's investigative and in-depth section, Newsbreak. Among Rappler’s senior founders and editors, she is also in charge of training. She obtained her graduate degree from Columbia University’s School of Journalism in New York.