De Lima accusers barred from US

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Opposition Senator Leila de Lima

CNN Philippines (Metro Manila, December 23) – Filipino public officials who were involved in the arrest and detention of opposition Senator Leila De Lima are now banned from the United States.

A spending measure signed by US President Donald Trump last Friday includes a provision which prohibits the entry of "foreign government officials involved in the wrongful imprisonment...of Senator Leila de Lima, who was arrested in the Philippines in 2017."

This is stated in the 2020 State and Foreign Operations Appropriations, and Related Programs Appropriations Bill. 

Section 7022 of the measure, which covers the Financial Management and Budget Transparency under Anti-Kleptocracy and Human Rights, states that the US Secretary –which is Secretary Mike Pompeo– shall submit to the concerned congressional committees a plan to implement corresponding sanctions on  gross violation of human rights" particularly "unjust or wrongful detention,"  including those of American citizens and nationals.

The provision will also apply to those who were behind the detention of Mustafa Kassem, an American citizen imprisoned by the government of Egypt, and to the government officials of Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, who were allegedly behind the detention of locally employed staff of US diplomatic missions or a US citizen or national.

The provision is also in line with the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, allowing the US government to impose sanctions on foreign government officials implicated in human rights abuses in any part of the world.

Democrat Senators Dick Durbin and Patrick Leahy introduced the amendment which the US Senate Appropriations Committee passed in September. The two senators are among the US lawmakers who have earlier said that De Lima's detention was politically motivated.

A 'Christmas blessing'

De Lima, on the other hand, expressed her "overwhelming gratitude" upon hearing the news.

"Human rights is fighting back! Accountability is coming! A most wonderful Christmas blessing! Thank you US! Thank you, dear God!" the senator said via Monday's dispatch.

"This latest development signals the fact that impunity cannot last and that one way or another, justice will catch up with those who choose to do injustice to others," De Lima noted.

She added that such move is a clear recognition that she is a "victim of political persecution."

Palace denies 'wrongful detention' of De Lima

Meanwhile, Malacañang was unfazed by this provision, claiming that De Lima was not "wrongfully detained" in the first place.

"In the first place, it is not a wrongful imprisonment, I've repeatedly explained that. So I suppose the Secretary of the State, unlike the two senatots who introduced that ammendment, is better informed and educated on the internal judicial process in this country and would necessarily follow his informed judgement," Panelo told reporters in a briefing.

Panelo said that the particular "colatilla" on De Lima's imprisonment should be backed by "credible information" in the first place before Pompeo imposes sanctions. He also insisted that De Lima went through an administrative and judicial process prior to her detention.

"I've repeatedly explained it cannot be a wrongful detention because the senator went through two processes – one administrative, when the investigating prosecutor conducted proceedings to determine whether there exists a probable cause on the filing of an information and the prosecutor found the existence of one, and the other process is judicial," he said.

Panelo added that they are "not bothered" by the move of the US government if other public officials from the Philippines will be barred entry to the country.

"It's their call. But we're not bothered by it if that is what you wanted me to say. I'm not bothered by it," the Presidential spokesperson said.

Asked if the government will file a formal protest to contest the ban, Panelo said he will leave that to Foreign Affairs chief Teddy Boy Locsin.

Justice Secretary Menardo Guevara also deferred to Locsin on the issue.

“I will leave it to our foreign affairs secretary to comment on this development,” he told reporters. “This involves issues of sovereignty and non-interference among co-equal nations.”

Locsin reacted, saying resolutions by the legislature or executive whether native or alien are "of no moment" since the accused can only go free after trial.

"US can refuse visas to anyone it wants for any reason; the PH deported a nun in that way. It is an aspect of sovereignty," he said on Twitter.

He added that it was the Supreme Court itself that ruled for De Lima's detention.

"To her credit de Lima dared challenge the sufficiency of the charges; to its credit the Republic's highest legal authority ruled them sufficient for prosecution & trial—2x," he said.

"The US resolution was by senators of varied talents; the SC ruling was by honour graduates. Point PH," Locsin added.

Congress reacts

House Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano, on the other hand, said that the US government might have pre-judged the resolution even as the Philippines' Supreme Court already upheld De lima's continued detention.

"So pinangungunahan ba ng US Congress ang ating judicial system? Kasi kung ganun, akala ko ba human rights o democratic rights," he said.

[Translation: Is the US Congress preempt our judicial system? Because how does human rights or democratic rights apply there?]

He also invited US lawmakers to come to the Philippines to see the human rights situation in the country for themselves.

Former House Majority Leader Rodolfo Fariñas denied that De Lima's imprisonment is "wrongful," as suggested by in the US spending bill. He said her arrest was ordered by a judge and upheld by the Supreme Court.

He also denied having been involved in De Lima's arrest, saying he only had a hand in the congressional probe on the senator's alleged involvement in the illegal drug trade at the New Bilibid Prison.

Senate President Vicente “Tito” Sotto III and Senator Richard Gordon both said that by enforcing the ban, the US is intruding on the country’s affairs.

“It only shows they meddle with other country's justice system without even investigating,” said Sotto.

“An intrusion on the internal affairs of our country. All our institutions are working,” echoed Gordon.

De Lima, who has been a staunch critic of President Rodrigo Duterte's administration, has been detained at the Philippine National Police Custodial Center since Feb. 24, 2017 for her alleged link to the drug trade at the New Bilibid Prison during her term as justice chief.

The senator, however, has repeatedly insisted that her detention was only part of the political persecution by the Duterte administration.