Days before the May 18 proclamation of the senators-elect, comeback kid JV Ejercito, No. 10 in the Senate’s “Magic 12,” noted a prickly point: the continuing detention of Sen. Leila de Lima on charges of taking drug money to fund her senatorial campaign in the 2016 elections.
“Hopefully,” Ejercito was quoted as saying in CNN Philippines’ “The Source,” those handling De Lima’s cases “would speed it up, because if [the witnesses’ recantation of their testimonies] were true, we are depriving her of liberty.”
De Lima is a prisoner—or, the now correct term, a PDL, a person deprived of liberty—of long standing. The former justice secretary and former chair of the Commission on Human Rights has been in police custody since February 2017, barred from taking part in Senate proceedings and even from access to television or the internet.She sought reelection in detention but landed 23rd among the senatorial candidates, outranked by such types as action star Robin Padilla (No. 1) and accused plunderer Jinggoy Estrada (No. 12).
Mr. Duterte had warned that if Vice President Leni Robredo won the presidency, De Lima and confessed drug lord Kerwin Espinosa would surely be pardoned, suggesting that it wouldn’t happen under the survey frontrunner and now presumptive president Ferdinand Marcos Jr. But Ejercito seemed at the moment of the interview earnest in his belief that, with Espinosa and two others who had implicated De Lima recanting their testimonies, each claiming that those testimonies were made under duress, she is being unjustly detained.
In his retraction, Rafael Ragos, a former acting chief of the Bureau of Corrections, said he had been coerced by then Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre and other officials including public attorneys into making a false testimony against De Lima.
Is there a chance that, in the 19th Congress, Ejercito’s words would ring a bell loudly enough for his colleagues in the Senate to hear? Like himself, most of the senators voted 16-4-2 to remove her as chair of the Senate committee on justice and human rights in September 2016. Their reason: that she was shining a negative light on Mr. Duterte’s war on drugs—and the Philippines in general—through her committee’s inquiry into the extrajudicial killing of drug suspects. Her removal was surgical, a procedure smoothly undertaken by Senators Alan Peter Cayetano, Manny Pacquiao and others expressly concerned about “the continuous effort to destroy” the President.
Even earlier than Ejercito’s remarks on De Lima, the presidential candidate Pacquiao agreed with a member of his senatorial slate that she had been detained long enough and should be released.
Will the incoming Senate now in the throes of positioning and “consensus-taking” quickly take up De Lima’s case and issue a resolution expressing its sense that the long detention of a senator of the realm is unjust? (One of three cases against her has ended in acquittal.) Or will the issue remain the elephant in the room despite global calls for her release?
In proclaiming the winners of the senatorial contest, the Commission on Elections formalized a peculiar configuration in the chamber that now includes two pairs of siblings (Ejercito and his half-brother Estrada; Pia and Alan Peter Cayetano) and a mother and her son (Cynthia and Mark Villar). Had a former vice president made it, there would have been a daughter and her dad (Nancy and Jojo Binay). Once more, but to a shockingly higher degree, Filipino voters demonstrated that they make their electoral choices on the basis of established names or notoriety, indifferent to the wealth of wisdom, experience and platform offered by certain candidates left biting the winners’ dust.
(Not that the Senate is unique: Elsewhere in this unhappy archipelago, spouses, siblings and other family members merrily interchanged local seats of power, scandalously winning as governors and vice governors, mayors and vice mayors, etc., as though there were absolutely no one else to take up the posts outside privileged kinships. The House, a chamber populated by dynasts, is no different; in the 18th Congress, for example, Alan Peter and Lani Cayetano, who are married to each other and almost certainly living in the same house, represented the first and second districts of Taguig.)
It remains to be seen if, in the flurry of resettling into the Senate and taking up from where he had left off, Ejercito would feel compelled to follow through on his remarks on De Lima’s detention. Will he rock the boat on this situation casting an inconvenient shadow on the chamber?
Meanwhile, long-ago details that may or may not be relevant are crowding the collective memory. After the Senate majority stripped De Lima of her committee chairmanship, Ejercito issued a statement that Malacanang had nothing to do with the matter. Five months later, a day after De Lima’s arrest in February 2017, Justice Secretary Aguirre asked a mass gathering of Duterte supporters who they wanted next: Sino ang gusto nyong isunod?