By Merlina Hernando Malipot, Genalyn D. Kabiling
Elena L. Aben, and Mario B. Casayuran
The arrest of Senator Leila de Lima Friday drew a wave of denunciations, with critics of the Duterte government calling it politically provoked, a smear attempt, and being downright illegal.
Malacañang, however, fended off the criticisms and guaranteed that de Lima would get fair treatment while in detention.
Vice President Maria Leonor Robredo fired off a stinging tirade, describing the arrest as the “latest move in a persistent campaign of political harassment being waged against a duly elected member of Congress.”
In a statement, Robredo said the efforts “to smear” De Lima are a “strong indication that the charges against her arise from a political agenda and are not the result of an independent, unbiased legal process.”
“Our history as a nation is marred by instances where government officials use the processes of criminal justice to cow, silence, and eliminate critics,” Robredo said.
She called on the public to “scrutinize this case religiously.”
De Lima was arrested at the Senate building in Pasay City on Friday morning. She is accused of involvement in a drug trafficking ring inside the New Bilibid Prison when she was Justice secretary.
Malacañang flatly rejected allegations that De Lima’s arrest was a form of political persecution.
“It’s a criminal case filed against her. It’s not a political case that was filed against her,” Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea told reporters in the Palace.
Earlier in the day, Presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella assured that De Lima would be treated with fairness and accorded due process. “She will have the opportunity to defend herself and prove her innocence,” Abella said.
Liberal Party (LP) President Francis Pangilinan was less critical in reacting to his party mate’s arrest.
“We’re concerned about her safety,” Pangilinan said, noting South Korean Jee Ick-Joo was killed last year right inside Camp Crame, the Philippine National Police (PNP) headquarters.
Pangilinan also referenced the stabbing last year of Jaybee Sebastian, a high-profile inmate at the New Bilibid Prison (NBP).
After the incident, Sebastian agreed to become one of the government witnesses against De Lima.
Asked to describe the mood inside De Lima’s Senate office before her arrest, Pangilinan said: “Fr. Robert Reyes was there, we prayed for Sen. De Lima, her safety and her championing the cause of human rights and we were discussing the proper process of being turned over to the CIDG.”
Pangilinan said De Lima was “holding up very well.”
“She’s very brave and you can see the courage, and she’s accepted the situation. She’s ready to face the consequences of her beliefs and her actions,” he said.
The LP issued a stronger statement, reiterating its condemnation of what it described as the political persecution of De Lima, a staunch critic of President Duterte.
“We repeat: The Sandiganbayan, not the RTC, has jurisdiction over the case as the alleged wrongdoings were supposedly committed when she was Justice secretary,” the LP said in a statement.
“This arrest is purely political vendetta and has no place in justice system that upholds the rule of law. This is condemnable,” it added.
Another vocal Duterte critic, Sen. Antonio F. Trillanes IV, said “the primary objective of the illegal arrest of Sen. De Lima is to send a chilling message to the political opposition and critics that they could be next.”
“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,” Trillanes said.
Another LP stalwart, Sen. Paolo Benigno Aquino IV, said the Duterte administration railroaded rules to achieve political vendetta.
“Even if there is no paper trail, even if they came from convicts who were given rewards for their testimonies, even if the evidence is whimsical, they will still jail you,” Aquino said.
Former senator M. A. “Jamby” Madrigal vented her ire on Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II for alleging that she and Laguna Rep. Marlyn Alonte offered a P100-million bribe to seven high-profile National Bilibid Prison convicts to retract their testimonies linking De Lima to drug trafficking.
Madrigal said what Aguirre said was “baseless, malicious and outright lies.”
“This morning Vitaliano Aguirre II maliciously claimed I somehow attempted to bribe one of his witnesses in a case of which I not only know nothing, but have no reason to be interested in whatsoever. I have been living the life of a quiet citizen far removed from the political mudslinging Mr. Aguirre apparently enjoys,” Madrigal said.
Madrigal, who is abroad, strongly denied having met Lalaine Madrigal Martinez, the wife of convicted kidnapper and drug lord Noel Martinez.
“I don’t know her and it isn’t true that I spoke or made any offer to her. The information being peddled by Aguirre is another bum steer,” Madrigal said.