US ban on PH officials linked to De Lima’s detention now in Pompeo’s hands

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, December 29) — The fate of Philippine officials involved in the “unlawful detention” of opposition Senator Leila de Lima now rests in the hands of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo who will decide if they should be barred from the United Stares as provided in a recently-passed law.

Pompeo may decide not to impose the ban, but a foreign policy aide of Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy — who pushed for the provision in the US 2020 spending bill — said this “would not be easy” for the State Secretary.

“His own State Department report expresses significant concern about the treatment of Senator De Lima. The United Nations is on record criticizing her detention. Human rights organizations that the State Department often refers to have been very critical of her unlawful detention,” Tim Rieser told CNN Philippines Sunday.

The State Department noted De Lima’s plight in reports on the human rights situation in the Philippines in 2017 and 2018, referencing human rights groups that said the cases against her were “politically motivated,” noting that prosecutors were delaying her arraignment.

Rieser said Pompeo can act any time on the ban, and those covered may only find out when they apply for a US visa.

“So it could be the result of, you applied and discovered that you are on such a list, or that you are included in such a list even if you have never applied to enter this country. But the manner in which you are informed of that is a matter of discretion for the Department of State,” Rieser explained.

Banned officials cannot set foot on US soil unless they have official business in the United Nations headquarters in New York or have matters involving law enforcement.

Rieser said that the ban could remain in effect as long as De Lima remains in detention, “unless the [Philippine] government were to come up with credible evidence that she is guilty of some offense which justifies her detention.”

“We are not yet aware of any credible evidence to support the charge against her that would justify her prosecution. So if the government has that evidence, let’s see it. Otherwise, simply proclaiming that she’s being provided due process is an empty statement,” Rieser pointed out.

Responding to Rieser, Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra invited Leahy’s legal staff to come to the Philippines to check the evidence presented in court, instead of relying on reports which he said “are at best second-hand evidence, and at worst multiple hearsay.”

“We will allow the legal staff of these senators to come and authorize them to go over the records and transcripts of the cases and observe the hearings, subject to reasonable regulations, so that they may enlighten their bosses,” Guevarra said.

Leahy and Senator Dick Durbin, who co-authored the provision on the ban, have been refused entry to the Philippines by President Rodrigo Duterte after the US law was passed.

In a separate statement, Leahy said the Philippine government should either release De Lima immediately or provide her a fair trial.

CNN Philippines has reached out to the US State Department for further comment.

Section 4 of the US 2020 Further Consolidated Appropriations Act points to the joint explanatory statement of the US Congress which, among others, 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.

EXPLAINER: How the US budget law bans Philippine officials

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.

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.