There is only one really significant question regarding the issuance of arrest warrants against Senator Leila late yesterday: What took them so long?
As far back as last October, after high-profile convict Jaybee Sebastian testified before the Senate about De Lima’s involvement in the proliferation of illegal drugs right inside the New Bilibid Prison, the senator’s arrest already appeared inevitable. But it took Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre and his five-man panel investigating the charges leveled against De Lima this long to file formal charges and secure warrants, much to the exasperation of many Filipinos who wanted her to get what, in their estimation, she so justly deserved.
Even De Lima herself has long been declaring that she would soon be arrested, saying that she was going to become the “first political prisoner” of the Duterte administration. Never mind if, to many people, the drawn-out drama was her own creation, in order to frame her impending arrest as a political vendetta instead of the simple operation of the justice system.
But it would be wrong to ignore the irony of the seeing De Lima, who portrayed herself as the avenging angel of partisan justice of the previous administration, thrown in jail for serious crimes. Or the karmic satisfaction that the many who have come to despise her derived from yesterday’s events.
De Lima has never been someone who elicits easy sympathy, even among the remnants of the once-formidable Yellow faction of Philippine politics. And her checkered past as the haughty and disdainful chief implementor of the policy of political retribution of the previous administration has not yet been forgotten, regardless of her election to the Senate last year.
Because De Lima has been instrumental in the prosecution (or persecution, depending on your political leanings) of the perceived political enemies of her former boss, ex-President Noynoy Aquino, most Filipinos want to know if she can take as good as she used to give. The justice secretary who once defied the Supreme Court in order to jail Gloria Macapagal Arroyo on orders from Aquino shouldn’t be such a crybaby, after all—especially when she’s been linked to very serious crimes such as bribery and aiding and abetting drug syndicates.
I think De Lima’s inexperience as a politician also made her believe that she could simply continue being one of the most vocal critics of the Duterte administration, even if she herself was vulnerable because of her supposed links to the drug syndicates in the penitentiary who also allegedly funded her campaign. As the experience of three senators that she also helped to put in jail should have taught her, being a member of the Senate does not make her immune from suit or detention.
There are, after all, senators who are even more identified with the previous administration’s failed policies than De Lima herself but who have wisely chosen to keep a much lower profile for their own political survival. Senator Franklin Drilon, for example, ranked even higher than De Lima as Senate president and enforcer during the Aquino years—but the wily Drilon has only intermittently criticized President Rodrigo Duterte while pulling off the political acrobatic feat of remaining in the Liberal Party while being a part of the majority as the chamber’s second-highest official.
Of course, there is also Senator Antonio Trillanes, who is apparently engaged in a private contest with De Lima as to who can make more outrageously accusatory statements against Duterte. But Trillanes seems to have covered his tracks a lot better than De Lima; after Aquino released Trillanes from jail for staging coup attempts at various hotels, there seems little more that can be used to bring him back into detention, unless his real role in as the mysterious “back-channel negotiator” with Beijing is conclusively proven.
De Lima really should have learned from her own pursuit of Arroyo, the late Chief Justice Renato Corona, and Senators Juan Ponce Enrile, Ramon Revilla Jr. and Jinggoy Estrada that her high office does not make her immune from prosecution. Unfortunately for her, it’s now too late for her to learn that lesson.
It is really up to the courts that will hear De Lima’s cases, of course, to determine her guilt or innocence. It may take years to resolve these serious charges, which may still be wending their way through the justice system by the end of Duterte’s term in 2022.
What’s certain is that because of the gravity of the alleged offenses, De Lima will surely be detained for a long time. Perhaps even longer than Arroyo herself, who was jailed for five years without the cases filed against her even going beyond the petition to grant her bail.
De Lima will have a lot of time to ponder her fate and to prepare her defense while she stays at the PNP Custodial Center in Camp Crame, a compound that she will share with Estrada and Revilla, whom she helped throw in jail as justice secretary. Perhaps, like Estrada and Revilla themselves, De Lima will soon become just another politician who thought he was above the law and who could repel any attempt to have him account for past criminal actions.
In the coming days and weeks, De Lima will hog the headlines, just like the people she helped throw in jail before did. Then, like them, she will soon be forgotten, as well.
And deservedly so.