In a clear intrusion into domestic affairs, US Senator Patrick Leahy says the Philippine government should free Senator Leila de Lima, instead of threatening to deny visas for American citizens.
De Lima, a former Justice secretary, was arrested on drug charges in February 2017, and has been on trial for one count of conspiracy to commit illegal drug trading before a Muntinlupa court since 2018. The process has been marked by delays—but this is nothing extraordinary, given the state of the Philippine justice system.
Leahy and US Senator Richard Durbin, taken in by De Lima’s posturing as a champion of justice and human rights, were responsible for a rider in the 2020 US national budget that bars entry to the United States any Philippine officials involved in her detention.
In retaliation, President Rodrigo Duterte barred Leahy and Durbin from entering the Philippines and said he would require all American citizens to obtain a visa before entering the country, if the travel ban on Filipino officials is enforced.
Leahy cried foul.
"Rather than responding by irrationally threatening to deny visas to American citizens, the Duterte government should either release Senator De Lima immediately or provide her the fair, public trial she is entitled to," Leahy said in a statement.
In so doing, Leahy demonstrated his ignorance of the case and the workings of the Philippine justice system, flawed and slow as it is.
Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra pointed out that the only way for De Lima to be released from detention is upon acquittal by the court and not upon the pressure exerted by Leahy and other American lawmakers.
"I wish Senator Leahy and his four other colleagues in the US Senate know that much of our constitutional law and rules on criminal procedure had their origin in US law. I also wish they know that Senator De Lima’s indictment was upheld by the Philippine Supreme Court and that she has been freely exercising all the rights of an accused in a fair and public trial," Guevarra said.
If indeed the justice system is flawed, it is for Filipinos—not some foreign interloper—to point this out and remedy the situation.
And if De Lima feels aggrieved, she should remember it is the same system she used when she was Justice secretary to detain former President Gloria Arroyo for more than four years on plunder charges she was ultimately never able to prove in court.
In fact, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention said Mrs. Arroyo’s detention—instigated and carried out by De Lima—violated international law and was arbitrary on a number of grounds.
But perhaps Senator Leahy did not have all the facts when he chose to speak up on matters that do not concern him—and on which he is woefully ill-informed.