Last Friday’s arrest of a Philippine senator who has been the leading voice against President Rodrigo Duterte’s unrelenting campaign against drugs was meant to stifle political dissent to his seven-month old regime, and it is only the beginning, analysts say.
Senator Leila de Lima’s dramatic fall from grace came on the heels of a sworn testimony of a former police officer who broke his silence on Duterte’s alleged “death squad”, months after denying its existence.
Police officer Arthur Lascanas confessed to leading the death squad which operated in the southern city of Davao, and directly taking orders from Duterte to kill petty criminals and drug dealers first and political opponents later.
“The rash imprisonment of Senator Leila is blatantly political persecution,” said Etta Rosales, a former head of the Commission on Human Rights, who was among the first people to visit de Lima’s detention cell inside Manila’s main police camp at the weekend.
Rosales, 77, who was jailed and tortured during the repressive Martial Law regime of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos, described the senator in good spirits, despite being locked away in a small cell which can only be reached after going through an “endless labyrinth” of narrow, cemented corridors.
She recalled that Mr. Duterte had said as early as last year about de Lima that he would be “killing her softly” in court after accusing the senator of going after him when she headed the government’s rights commission and justice ministry.
“It is quite apparent that he sees nothing wrong in using the powers of his office to get back at a person who he feels has shamed him when he was mayor,” Rosales said. “He sees nothing wrong in using these powers to get back at another public official for personal vengeance.” Rosales said de Lima was right when she insisted that the president be held “accountable” for past rights abuses.
“On recorded actual killings, Duterte beats Marcos,” she said. “His administration allowed for 7,000 plus killings in seven months while recorded killings under Marcos was over 3,000 during 14 years of martial rule.”
Ironically, Duterte is a known political ally of the Marcos family, whom he has publicly credited for contributing to his campaign for the presidency last year. One of his first official acts was to rebury Marcos as a hero, touching off massive protests. He has also publicly supported ex-senator Ferdinand Marcos Jr, the son and namesake of his idol who lost the vice presidency last year.
The dictator’s two decade regime was ended by a “people power” revolt that forced Marcos into exile in Hawaii 31 years ago last Saturday. His family, however, was subsequently allowed to return home, where they have slowly rebuilt their political fortunes.
“I have always suspected Duterte to be enamored of the character of Marcos. I suspect him to genuinely admire Marcos, the macho leader during his time. He made a hero of Marcos by burying him in a hero’s cemetery,” Rosales said.
Senator Risa Hontiveros, a former Leftist activist, said the arrest was “outright political persecution” and a travesty of justice. “It is a throwback to an authoritarian past. It highlights the slow death of our democracy and rule of law,” she said.
“This sets a dangerous precedent for the government to arrest and incarcerate individuals that it perceives as its enemies, on the basis only of mere allegations and without due process,” Hontiveros said.
“By stopping at nothing to persecute Senator Leila, the state sends a chilling message to all–political dissent under this administration will not be tolerated. All those who will oppose will be destroyed,” Hontiveros said.
Until last week, de Lima has been the fiercest opponent of the government’s drugs crackdown, which has left over 7,000 users and dealers since last year, including those killed by vigilantes.
De Lima spearheaded a Senate panel last year that investigated the killings and heard the testimony from a self-described hit man, Edgar Matobato, who claimed to be part of the Duterte’s death squad. An incensed Duterte rallied his allies in the Senate and ousted de Lima as chairwoman of the investigation panel.
His allies soon after held Congressional hearings at which imprisoned drug kingpins testified that they had given de Lima bribes through her driver and bodyguard, with whom she had a romantic past.
The testimonies at the hearings were used as the basis of charges filed against de Lima and spearheaded by Duterte’s fraternity brother, Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre, who alleged that the senator used the drug money to fund her senatorial campaign last year.
Responding to the accusation, a defiant de Lima said her arrest was an “an appalling sign of the return of a power-hungry, morally bankrupt and abusive government.”
“From the very beginning, I knew that this regime would not seek true justice. The filing of criminal cases against me is only the fulfillment of Mr. Duterte’s fixation for revenge against me, because of my investigation of the Davao Death Squad when I was then the Chairperson of the Commission on Human Rights,” she said in a statement.
“We all know now that every action of the President has no clear basis. He does it on a whim. Not because it is right or wrong, but because he can do it, and we are letting him. This is impunity. Whatever he does, he is confident that he is free from any punishment,” she said.
With her arrest, de Lima said Duterte was effectively trying to derail the public testimonies of his former henchman, whose testimonies she said have unmasked the president as a “murderer and a sociopathic serial killer.”
Responding to de Lima’s arrest for the first time on Monday, Duterte said he would leave it to the court to decide “who is lying and who is not.” He said those criticizing the government’s drug war, had nothing to fear “unless you are involved in drugs, you should be.”
He assured de Lima’s safety while in detention, saying: “I think people are interested not to see her dead but to see her in prison for what she did.” But he also said he would not deny that “hundreds of criminals” died in Davao City during his term.
Senator Antonio Trillanes, a de Lima ally and a former soldier who once helped launch a failed rebellion against the government, said the arrest was clearly meant to “send a chilling message to the political opposition and critics that they could be next.”
“Well, the effect to me is exactly the opposite. I am now motivated more than ever to expose him for being a plunderer and mass murderer that he truly is,” he said.