Monday, December 30, 2019

Free De Lima instead of threatening visa restrictions, US senator says

The Philippine government should free detained Sen. Leila De Lima "or provide her [a] fair, public trial" instead of threatening visa restrictions on visiting US citizens, US Sen. Patrick Leahy, who is banned from entering the country, said. Although there have been procedural delays on her case, De Lima is already being tried at the Muntinlupa Regional Trial Court and the Supreme Court has ruled that media should be allowed to cover hearings.

"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 on Sunday.

Although the US, among many other countries, require Filipinos to apply for visas before visiting, Americans currently have visa-free access to the Philippines. Leahy's statement comes after a provision he and US Sen. Dick Durbin proposed was included in the 2020 State and Foreign Operations Appropriations bill that barred officials involved in De Lima's arrest from entering the US.

In a statement in Sunday. Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra pointed out "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."

"They also ought to know that Senator de Lima can only be released upon an acquittal, and not at anytime upon pressure exerted by foreign politicians who do not represent the people of the Philippines," he also said, referring to Leahy and his colleagues in the US Senate. "The good senator from Vermont, through his spokesperson David Carle, is showing more ignorance and uttering amusing nonsense on a subject matter based on bogus narratives coming from President Rodrigo Roa Duterte's vocal and noisy critics and detractors,” presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo said of Leahy in an earlier statement.

The Palace regularly shrugs off criticism from abroad as being ill-informed.

The Palace has been telling critics of De Lima's detention that she is getting a "fair public trial as due process requires."

But De Lima said on Friday that "[t]hose who are genuinely on the side of truth and justice can never be hoodwinked into believing that we have a fair justice system and a strong vibrant democracy." Leahy in his statement also pointed to Rappler CEO Maria Ressa, who is currently facing cyberlibel charges. Ressa and Rappler have been on the receiving end of the president's tirades and of lawsuits, which some media groups say are attacks on press freedom.

The Palace has denies that the cases against Rappler are related to its critical reportage on the administration's policies.

"The imprisonment of Senator De Lima, and the threats against renowned journalist Maria Ressa, have been criticized around the world, including by the U.S. Department of State and the United Nations," Leahy said. "And rather than try to silence a journalist who has bravely dared to expose official corruption and abuse, it should recognize Maria Ressa as a courageous Filipino exercising her right of free expression."

Despite the verbal tussle on visas, Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin, Jr told reportrers this week that ties between the two countries remain "perfect."

De Lima was jailed in 2017 over drug charges filed by the Department of Justice. She is accused of involvement in the illegal drug trade at the New Bilibid Prison when she was Justice secretary during the presidency of Benigno Aquino III.

She has been an outspoken critic of the Duterte administration and tried to investigate the existence of an alleged "Davao Death Squad" while Justice secretary and when she was chair of the Commission on Human Rights. She claims the charges against her are politically motivated and are made up.