Presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo is invoking national sovereignty to protest “foreign interference” in the country’s judicial processes. This nationalism, a sentiment that is swiftly awakened in response to criticisms from the United States and Western Europe, stays dormant otherwise, where nowadays it matters more—in our relationship with China.
What provoked Panelo’s latest patriotic fulmination is an amendment introduced by American senators Richard Durbin and Patrick Leahy during the deliberation of the 2020 US Appropriations Bill for State and Foreign Operations. The controversial initiative reads: “Prohibition on Entry—Section 7022(c) of this act shall be applied to officials of the government of the Philippines about whom the secretary of state has credible information [that they] have been involved in the wrongful imprisonment of Sen. Leila de Lima, who was arrested in 2017 on politically motivated charges.” While it has passed the Senate committee level, it has yet to be approved by the whole US Congress.
But the point has been made — the American political establishment is keenly watching this case. It conveys the warning that any Filipino government official who was complicit in the wrongful detention of Senator De Lima could be barred from entering the United States.
Presumably, a list would be compiled by the state department and given to US Immigration. The names could include, among others, all the witnesses who supplied fabricated testimonies, the prosecutors who prepared the fake charges against De Lima, the judges who set aside the basic requirements of fairness when they admitted the case for trial despite the almost complete reliance of the case on the testimonies of convicts, and denied her the right to post bail; and, not to forget, President Duterte himself, who, from the beginning of his presidency, had vowed to jail the undaunted woman senator who has pursued a relentless investigation of his human rights violations.
Panelo has condemned this move as “a brazen attempt to intrude into our country’s domestic legal processes given that the subject cases against the detained senator are presently being heard by our local courts.” I don’t know how this could be viewed as interference in the domestic affairs of a sovereign country. It is not unusual for other nations to criticize the way other governments conduct their internal affairs, particularly if these touch upon values that are supposed to be shared by both. The latter can always rebut these criticisms.
No outsider is ordering anybody to do more (or less) than what a reasonable observer would consider fair or just. If De Lima demanded or took bribes from any of the convicts in exchange for privileges in prison, she should be charged for corruption or extortion, not for conspiracy to trade in prohibited drugs, a nonbailable offense. She should be freed and allowed to post bail while the cases against her are being heard.
What probably got the ire of Panelo was the overt warning that anyone who participated in the politically motivated imprisonment of De Lima could be barred from entering the United States. While I’m sure President Duterte has no desire or intent to visit the United States anytime soon, many in the present government may be regular visitors and holders of long-term multiple entry US visas. They’re forewarned.
But if their consciences are clear, they should have nothing to fear. The worst thing that could befall them, if they happen to be on the US Immigration lookout list, is that they would be sent back to wherever they came from, on the next available flight.
To determine whom to bar or to admit into one’s country is a sovereign prerogative of every nation. Panelo knows this, for sure. There wasn’t anything that former ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales and former foreign secretary Albert del Rosario could do after they were refused entry into Hong Kong recently. They were not even told why they were being barred, though it was easy to guess the reason.
If the Durbin-Leahy amendment passes US congressional scrutiny and becomes part of the 2020 Appropriations Bill, it would be interesting to know who lands in the “prohibition on entry” list as a result of the handling of the De Lima case. I doubt that it will be made public. But there lies its potency as a deterrent against the malicious weaponization of legal processes to punish, silence or intimidate dissenters and critics of government. It is worth noting that this amendment also refers to “wrongful detention” in countries like Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and seeks the application of the same measure to these cases. America is simply putting its laws where its mouth is.
If Malacañang feels truly offended by, to quote Panelo, this “insult to the competence of our duly constituted authorities,” “it is an outright disrespect to our people’s clamor for law and order,” the Duterte administration could counter the perceived insolence of these two American senators by declaring them persona non grata and barring them from entering the Philippines.
But Panelo must be aware that the country under President Duterte’s watch has already lost so much support from many of its traditional allies. After ranting against foreign interference in our internal affairs, he meekly concludes: “We shall leave it to the international community to ascertain which nation values the rule of law in accordance with the principle of state sovereignty.” Sus!