Excluding De Lima and others

The coronavirus pandemic requires a whole of nation approach. Every sector and citizen must be enlisted in the fight ahead. This is a marathon and not a sprint. A disunited people and country will not win against this insidious virus. If we do not unite and come together as Team Philippines, to use a term popularized by former President Fidel Ramos, we are doomed and infections will spread and deaths will increase.

Unfortunately, in front of this clear need to close ranks, the national government is undermining such unity. We see this in what is happening on the Senate with respect to the participation of Senator Leila De Lima in its online proceedings. We  are witnessing this in the many arrests done by the police last Friday, May 1, in Marikina, Quezon City, and Iloilo. Indeed this is obvious in the way quarantine rules are being arbitrarily imposed. We see this in the unabated killings of activists even as the country battles this crisis.

Foul and unfair exclusion of De Lima

I support the senate decision to convene its forthcoming plenary sessions and committee hearings via teleconferencing. This decision is unprecedented even as it is necessitated by the physical distancing required by the coronavirus. It would even be more historic if Senator De Lima, is allowed to participate.

Unfortunately, under the proposed rules that is expected to be approved this coming Monday, that will not happen. Under those rules, the good senator, who has unjustly detained already for a one thousand one hundred and sixty six days on Monday, will be not allowed to join the online proceedings.

Senator De Lima rightly calls the senate decision as “foul and unfair’ motivated by “petty politics, and “completely and “absolutely misinformed”.

The Committee for the Freedom of Leila M. de Lima, of which I am a member, calls on the Senate to reverse this terribly unfair decision to exclude De Lima. It is our view that allowing her online participation will not in any way interfere with the exercise of jurisdiction of the court and the Philippine National Police over the person of the Senator, and will even honor the right of her 14 million voters to be represented in the deliberative processes of the Senate. 

The Committee cites the 2008 decision of the Supreme Court in the case of Trillanes v. Pimentel.  In that case, the Court  clarified that the limitation in the practice of profession only applies in situation where the person deprived of liberty has to go out of the detention facility. In this case, Senator de Lima will not leave the PNP Custodial Center, as she intends to attend the Senate sessions and hearings while in the detention facility, with the use of telecommunication and internet technologies, just like her colleagues at the Senate.

In the same Trillanes case, the Supreme Court “recognized that the accused could somehow accomplish legislative results.” Thus, despite her detention for more than three (3) years now, Senator de Lima is able to file a good number of bills, resolutions, committee reports, dissenting reports, interpellation questions, and amendment papers. Senator de Lima is in fact the principal author of some pieces of meaningful legislation, including the 4Ps Act and the Magna Carta of the Poor. Hence, there simply is no rhyme or reason why Senator de Lima should be deprived of the option to participate in the online sessions and hearings of the Senate, a prerogative that will be available to all other Senators. 

The Committee also emphasize that Senator de Lima is constitutionally presumed innocent, and she does not suffer from any penalty of civil interdiction that prohibits her from exercising her civil and political rights. Performing her job as Senator as long as she can do this inside the detention facility is part of her rights. Thus, there is no constitutional or legal impediment to disallow Senator de Lima from taking part in the online sessions, hearings and meetings of the Senate.

Targeting activists on labor day

This exclusionary approach we also saw last Friday when the PNP arrested women activists in Marikina and youth activists in Quezon City for providing food and other assistance to communities affected by the enhanced community quarantine imposed in Metro Manila. Fortunately those arrested in Marikina has been released for lack of probable cause after the city’s courageous and progressive mayor Marcy Teodoro stood up for the activists. Likewise, those arrested in Iloilo for protesting the death of Bayan Muna leader Jory Porquia have been arrested although they have now been released on bail.

In Rodriguez, Rizal, two labor leaders from the labor center Bukluran ng Manggagawang Pilipino were arrested by the police for participating in a labor day demonstration, despite the demonstration following strict physical distancing protocols. The two arrested labor leaders, Lito Rastica and Reynaldo Dulay, were part of a group of worker-activists calling for financial aid and mass testing for working class communities. After two days, the two are still locked up in the San Jose Police station in Montalban awaiting inquest.

 I am hopeful that Quezon City and Rizal prosecutors will also decide the same way. I expect Mayor Joy Belmonte to be as courageous in supporting the youth activists and residents arrested in Quezon City. Our Chancellor in the University of the Philippines Diliman, Dr, Fidel Nemenzo has certainly been supportive of the UP students who were arrested in QC.

What is alarming is this militaristic and frankly arbitrary approach to implementing the enhanced community quarantine is clearly a trend. We saw this earlier in the arrests of the San Roque residents and more recently in the mauling of a vendor by Quezon City officials. divisive acts by the police and other government officials are counterproductive.

The government must reverse itself as this will not be a successful strategy to dealing with the challenge of the pandemic. First, arresting people and putting them in detention centers increase the likelihood of many people – arrested people and the police, including the prosecutors and the defense lawyers – getting infected. Second, the kind of behavior required by the quarantine cannot be coerced. If people are not wearing masks, provide them masks to wear. If they are in places they should not be, escort them back to those places. A facilitative, educational approach works much better than using the strong arm of the law.

Finally, I must plead to all armed groups, state sanctioned as well revolutionary forces to stand down in this most challenging time. Enough of extrajudicial killings like what was done to Marlon Maldos in Bohol last March and Porquia just last week! Enough of ambushes of soldiers on relief missions.

As I have written before, the pandemic is not a war and cannot be fought with arms nor brute force. It has to be fought with science, discipline, cooperation, and national unity. And unless we are united as a people, we will not defeat this enemy. The country is at a crossroads in its fight against COVID-19. Let’s win this, not by excluding De Lima or intimidating activists. We can win this but only if we do it together.

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