EXPLAINER: How the US budget law bans Philippine officials

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CNN Philippines breaks down the 2020 appropriations act of the United States which provides sanctions against Philippine officials linked to Senator Leila de Lima's detention.

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, December 28) — At first glance, the 2020 budget law signed by US President Donald Trump does not seem to include a provision denying entry to Philippine officials responsible for the detention of Senator Leila de Lima.

This led to talks that the ban on Filipino government officials from the US – widely reported by local media – was "fake news."

A careful look at the 2020 Further Consolidated Appropriations Act, which became law on December 20, does bar certain Philippine officials from setting foot on US soil.

Two documents

Section 4 of the US spending measure contains a short but important explanation.

"The explanatory statement regarding this Act, printed in the House section of the Congressional Record on or about December 17, 2019, and submitted by the Chairwoman of the Committee on Appropriations of the House, shall have the same effect with respect to the allocation of funds and implementation of divisions A through H of this Act as if it were a joint explanatory statement of a committee of conference," the law reads.

This refers to the joint explanatory statement of the US Congress. Division G, or the report on the Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations bill, orders all federal government bodies to comply with the directives written in the report that accompanied Senate Bill 2853, as well as its counterpart document in the House.

The Senate report contains the controversial provision on prohibiting the entry of "foreign government officials about whom the Secretary (of State) has credible information have been involved in the wrongful imprisonment" of De Lima.

This gives US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo the power to name the Philippine officials to be covered by the sanction.

"Because it was not expressly negated in the conference agreement signed by the President it stands as if it were included in the agreement. It has the same force and effect as original report language," said David Carle, spokesperson of US Senator Patrick Leahy, who pushed for the ban.

The provision is in line with the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, which allows Washington to punish foreign officials implicated in "significant corruption or gross violations of human rights" in any part of the world. Facing the same fate are officials behind the detention of Mustafa Kassem, an American citizen imprisoned by Egypt, and government officials of Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia responsible for the detention of locally employed staff of US diplomatic missions or US citizens.

De Lima, a staunch critic of President Rodrigo Duterte, has been detained since 2017 for alleged involvement in the illegal drug trade inside the national penitentiary when she was Justice Secretary. She has denied the charges, accusing the government of fabricating the cases against her.

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The Duterte administration vigorously denied that the De Lima case was political persecution, noting that the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of her arrest on drug charges.

US senator confirms

US Senator Dick Durbin, one of the lawmakers who introduced the amendment on refusing US entry to De Lima's accusers, confirmed in a tweet that it was included in the final version of the budget bill.

De Lima's camp told CNN Philippines on Saturday that Durbin's office also informed them of this.

In apparent retaliation, Duterte on Friday ordered the Bureau of Immigration to refuse Durbin and Senator Patrick Leahy, co-author of the amendment, entry to the Philippines.

The administration also threatened to require all Americans to secure a visa before entering the Philippines – regardless of the purpose of their visit and the length of their stay. At present, US citizens visiting the Philippines for not more than 30 days do not need to have a visa.

"Just tit for tat," Foreign Affairs Secretary Tedoro "Teddy Boy" Locsin, Jr. said about the move.

Durbin and Leahy have not made public any plans to go to Manila. Leahy appeared unfazed on Saturday as he continued to express support for De Lima. He retweeted on Saturday a statement he posted in October: "Senator Leila de Lima has bravely defended human rights throughout her career. We should defend hers."

CNN Philippines has reached out to Durbin and Leahy for further comment.

Confusion over US law

But Senate President Vicente "Tito" Sotto III maintained the US ban was "fake news."

"[Resolution] may be true but passage [through] their budget is false," Sotto said in a text message to CNN Philippines, adding that the proposed amendment never prospered.

"[I]t appears the US government does not really care to meddle in our Justice System specially it involves the Supreme Court of the Philippines," he noted.

De Lima, in a statement, said that it was likely her critics only looked at the final version of the law, stressing that the US federal government's operations are "very broad and complex."

"The provision banning my persecutors is stated therein (Senate report) and it was not specifically negated by the Explanatory Report (in the law). Hence, it remains in force," she said, citing the joint explanatory statement of the US Congress. The embattled senator makes her dispatches from her detention cell in the Philippine National Police Custodial Center.

CNN Philippines' Joyce Ilas contributed to this report.