A tale of two justice secretaries: The De Lima-Guevarra balance

Lian Buan

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A tale of two justice secretaries: The De Lima-Guevarra balance
Senator Leila de Lima and Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra may not meet eye to eye, but they understand each other and what their jobs mean

Senator Leila de Lima is going all out against people she calls her persecutors, but there is one person with a crucial role in the big picture   that she has spared: Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra.

On April 12, 2019, when US senators began to call for the release of the detained senator, De Lima chided Guevarra for saying that the American lawmakers were “misinformed.”

“As Department of Justice Secretary, he has continued the legal persecution started by his infamous predecessor by maintaining the criminal convicts as state witnesses against me, even if they are disqualified by law,” said De Lima.

Yet in October, in naming her supposed persecutors, De Lima excluded Guevarra, and bannered only President Rodrigo Duterte, Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo, former justice secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II, Solicitor General Jose Calida and other officials, plus pro-Duterte bloggers.

Since then and up to the time US President Donald Trump signed the 2020 budget that implemented the travel ban against De Lima’s jailers, Rappler asked the senator’s camp if Guevarra was going to be included in her list. The answers were never categorical.

On Sunday, December 29, De Lima’s camp still referred to her initial list from October.

A balancing act

The courtesy towards Guevarra, who was once part of the Aquino administration, does not only come from De Lima, but from other members of the opposition as well, be it the Liberal Party (LP) or the Left. On several issues, Guevarra has done some actions agreeable to the opposition, such as when he stopped state protection for alleged pork barrel scam mastermind Janet Napoles. 

It bears mentioning that members of the opposition – including De Lima – have pending cases before the DOJ: the high-profile Bikoy-related sedition complaint against LP members and some of their allies, and the trafficking complaints against key members of the Left over student recruitment to progressive groups.

But what does Guevarra have to do with it, when the prosecution panel is independent of the DOJ?

“In reality, there is nothing objectionable, legally or ethically, for an SOJ to closely monitor certain cases, especially high-profile ones, and try to ‘influence’ his subordinates to do the right thing, and to exercise their best judgment in decision-making,” De Lima told Rappler through a questionnaire.

“I agree,” Guevarra told Rappler on Sunday.

“You know, I have nothing personal against Senator De Lima. I base everything on competent evidence only,” Guevarra added.

The drug case

Guevarra has been strictly legal when commenting on De Lima’s case, a far cry from the colorful rhetoric of his predecessor.

When De Lima criticizes Guevarra, it is always on the topic of convicts used as witnesses against her in her drug trial at the Muntinlupa Regional Trial Court (RTC), which had been marred by delays exacerbated by the endless changes in judges.

De Lima says the Witness Protection Program (WPP) prohibits convicts of “crimes involving moral turpitude” from being state witnesses. She is correct.

But Guevarra countered“No convicted person has been used as a state witness under Rule 119 against Senator Leila de Lima.” He is also correct.

Under Section 17, Rule 119 of the Rules of Court, a state witness is a person “charged with the commission of any offense.” The convicts were never charged in the De Lima cases; they were absolved by the prosecution precisely to become witnesses, a classic DOJ strategy, according to lawyers.

When Guevarra – and Panelo for that matter – argue that De Lima’s detention was “lawful,”  they are also correct in that it went through the strict definition of due process.

De Lima alleges that the system was rigged from the very beginning.

“What [Aguirre] led was a conspiratorial cabal composed of the SolGen, the PAO, the Bureau of Corrections, the DOJ, and shady civilian characters like Sandra Cam and Ferdinand Topacio. This was no regular law enforcement investigation on the Bilibid drug trade. It was a plain and simple demolition job to destroy their President’s political enemy without any mercy whatsoever,” said De Lima.

In response, Guevarra said, “I cannot comment [on that] for lack of personal knowledge.”

On the latest call of US Senator Patrick Leahy to free De Lima, Guevarra said, “I invite his legal staff to come over and pore over the evidence so far presented in court, instead of relying on so-called ‘reports’ which are at best secondary evidence, and at worst multiple hearsay.”

We asked Guevarra: Three years into the trial, when is the DOJ going to finally present in court its money trail evidence, for example a supposed report by the Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLC) against De Lima?

“I will have to refer your questions to the Prosecutor General,” said Guevarra.

Because of the lack of hard evidence, retired Supreme Court justice Antonio Carpio called De Lima’s detention as one of the “grossest injustice” the country had ever seen. Five other justices agreed with him in a narrow 9-6 decision to uphold De Lima’s indictment.

The two SOJs

Justice secretaries are, at the end of the day, political appointees – alter egos of their presidents. 

And De Lima truly knows that.

“At the end of the day, it is the President who prevails. The only choice of the SOJ is to resign or to submit to the decision of the President, unless the President is a criminal, and what he is asking the SOJ to do is a crime,” De Lima said, referring again to Aguirre.

“As SOJ, I’m passionately doing my job of prosecuting those indicted under our criminal laws, regardless of who they are,” said Guevarra.

The two may not meet eye to eye, but they understand each other and understand what their jobs mean.

Theirs is a tale interesting to watch as De Lima’s trial continues. – Rappler.com

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Lian Buan

Lian Buan is a senior investigative reporter, and minder of Rappler's justice, human rights and crime cluster.