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Shades of grey: Does the case against Senator De Lima really stack up?



Senator Leila de Lima, who is currently being held at PNP headquarters at Camp Crame

Jailed senator Leila de Lima is a divisive figure — opinions about her are rarely in any shade of grey.

Supporters of Duterte’s administration tend to paint her as the black widow of the drug trade, while her own backers consider her a Snow White of righteous resistance.

According to current opinion polls, the first of these views has most captured the public imagination in the Philippines.

But to make the case for her defence, it only takes a moment to google her history. There are three main things to consider:

The 2009 Commission for Human Rights (CHR) investigation into the Davao Death Squad (DDS) saw her publicly berating (then mayor) Duterte for failing to stop extra-judicial killings in the city he controlled.

After becoming president, Duterte publicly vowed he’d never forget this.

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The second is the December 2014 Bilibid Prison raid, led by De Lima as Department of Justice (DOJ) secretary. This put an end to the luxurious lifestyle of prison drug lords.

The third was De Lima’s more recent senate investigation into the president’s war on drugs and extra-judicial killings last year.

Her star witness was self-confessed DDS hitman Edgar Matobato, who named Arthur Lascañas as his boss. When Lascañas was called to the senate, he denied everything.

Now, however, he has recanted that testimony, saying the DDS had long been led and financed by Duterte. He also confessed to killing two of his own brothers and fire bombing a number of mosques.

So in these these three points we have the motivation, the means and the momentum to bring the senator down.

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Bringing the case against her, Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II presented 22 witnesses, and created the narrative that the Bilibid raid was nothing more than an attempt by De Lima to bolster her control of the prison’s drug trade.

Suddenly, the claims of these vengeful drug lords — people not qualified to turn state witness due to their convictions and still angered by De Lima’s raid — were accepted as credible.

And so it was that De Lima was jailed on non-bailable drug charges, while the criminals who stood witness against her have simultaneously regained their old privileges.

This has apparently been swallowed whole by DOJ prosecutors – who, by the way, are public officials whose jobs depend on the president.

Whatever the facts of the case, there is also the issue of due process. De Lima’s charges were not examined by the ombudsman before being referred to the Sandiganbayan — the ‘people’s advocate court’. By law, any such alleged crime committed by a senior public official should follow this path.

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If that had happened, it is almost certain that the ombudsman would have pointed out that convicts could not be state witnesses, and the case would have been thrown out.

On top of all this, the case is shaky. Under law, you can’t convict somebody for drug trafficking without any mention of the substances involved. “Drugs” isn’t a thing. A court can’t presume that a substance is a dangerous drug unless it knows what “it” is.

It’s going to be an interesting trial (if and when it actually happens) — on one side there are serious allegations against De Lima, but on the other is a whole can of worms that could ultimately consume Duterte’s presidency.

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