[OPINION | NEWSPOINT] Leila de Lima, the missed tipping point

Vergel O. Santos

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Out here a smattering of protest is all that has passed for righteous resistance. A tipping point is eternally awaited. It’s actually long past. It was Leila de Lima.

Given our thing about signs, occasions, and fortuity, it should be convenient in the New Year, at least for the partisans of Senator Leila de Lima, to view the American ban on Philippine officials involved in her persecution as the preordained beginning of her rescue. Next month, De Lima will have been in arbitrary detention for 3 years. 

The United States being a favorite place of Filipinos of means in which to spend and park their wealth, in particular wealth acquired by official corruption, the ban does inspire hope for De Lima: by being banned from entering the US, her persecutors are kept from touching their assets there, if they have any; in fact, the prospect has been raised of these assets being frozen, in case proxies try doing it for them. 

And, with other Western democracies being apparently taken with the same leveraging for justice and human rights as the Americans are doing – not to mention the case against President Duterte in the International Criminal Court for his brutal war on drugs – the world is definitely shrinking for him and his regime.

Instantly, predictably, the ban triggered Duterte into an explosion of rants and curses, the precise opposite reaction he had displayed when Chinese immigration authorities turned away former Supreme Court justice and Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales and former foreign secretary Alberto del Rosario, for no apparent reason other than their being Duterte critics, when they tried to visit Hong Kong. But that’s Duterte, a narcissist explosive or playable depending on the stimulus. 

But again, since the American sanction is aimed at a target that allows for its expansive redefinition – what, in de Lima’s case, constitutes persecution? – not only Duterte officials but cronies, courtiers, indeed all manner of supporters are covered potentially. A number of them have in fact begun to betray their apprehension: some concede the justifiability of the ban, if not expressly its appropriateness, in effect questioning Duterte’s order to counter it with a ban of his own; others, among them known trolls for Duterte, are trying to wash their hands off the De Lima case.

To De Lima’s supporters, indeed to everyone who proclaims comradeship with her, the ban offers a lesson, too, a critical and rather embarrassing one, but, learned well, one that could prove self-redeeming.

De Lima’s persecution, along with Duterte’s war on drugs, heralded our descent into authoritarianism. He had expressly warned that martial law was his preferred mode of ruling, but needed to ease himself into it because the armed forces would not go along without a constitutional justification, although, seeing where we are, a nominal justification of the sort seems to suffice. 

For starters, Duterte declared a war on drugs and began to go after De Lima, portraying her as a drug trafficker. But it’s easy to work vengeance into the picture: As chairperson of the Commission on Human Rights, de Lima had investigated Duterte for death-squad murders perpetrated in Davao City when he was the mayor there. A confessed former assassin on the squad testified later that De Lima had been herself marked for assassination and had escaped only by detouring from the ambush site by chance.

The tables now turned on her, she was put through a most savagely personally invasive run of investigations in Congress and, after that, a most shameful exhibition of kangaroo-court proceedings, which have dragged on to this day. On February 24, 2017, 7 months into the Duterte regime, she was hauled to jail. Her prosecutors have downgraded her case from outright drug trafficking to mere conspiracy, but the courts continue to deny her her right to bail. The life-term convicts around whose testimony her case was almost wholly built have been moved from the national prison to more comfortable detention quarters in an army camp, and only because a far better deal – as absurd as it is, parole for “good behavior” is not unthinkable – was thwarted by exposé and has to wait.

At the end of the year, the Duterte presidency brought out a report of “key accomplishments,” listing among these more than 20,000 killed in the drug war (counting from July 1, 2016, the day Duterte took office, to November 27, 2017). But the police owned only 4,000 of the kills, blaming the others on vigilantes – that is, non-police but inspired all the same by the same call for war. 

Before the end of the year, Duterte placed all of Mindanao, one of the archipelago’s 3 main islands, under martial law, although the trouble, caused, according to the official report, by a mixed band of brigands, drug dealers, and separatists, was confined in only one city. Congress rubber-stamped his martial law to give it legal validity, anyway. 

In March the following year, the House of Representatives, taking a cue from Duterte, impeached Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno; she was just too independent-minded for his comfort. But before the case could be sent up to the Senate, her own Supreme Court, whose majority had made no secret of their resentment at being bypassed by her in spite of their seniority, hijacked the Senate’s power to try her. Within two months she was removed, her appointment, by Duterte’s predecessor, Benigno Aquino III, declared invalid due to some unmet prerequisite. 

Even this news organization has not gone unspared. It is harassed  with concocted court cases; its chief, Maria Ressa, has been arrested twice, detained once, and made to post bail 8 times.

In the meantime, China consolidated control over the West Philippine Sea. Just before Aquino’s term ended, the Philippines had won its territorial case  in an arbitral court against China over those strategic and resource-rich waters. But Duterte chose to give the territory away to appease China, which proceeded to stuff onerous loans and other lopsided contracts down Duterte’s prodigious throat. The treason goes on.

With notes written by hand and smuggled from her cell and published online – and in the media, too, sparingly – De Lima has not failed to call out Duterte on every issue, and do so in such a robust and cogent way he must be congratulating himself for having kept her out of the Senate and in jail.

Out here a smattering of protest is all that has passed for righteous resistance. A tipping point is eternally awaited. It’s actually long past. It was Leila de Lima.

Ah, but the proper stars have become aligned in this New Year, and the US Cavalry is coming. Well, I have news for you: National redemption lies neither with the configuration of the heavens nor with any foreign cavalry; it lies with the nation itself – us ourselves. – Rappler.com

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