THE charges against her were filed in haste and in the wrong venue, in what appears to be a case of political persecution. If that sounds familiar, it’s not only because supporters of Sen. Leila de Lima have been saying it since the days before her arrest last Friday morning.
Nearly six years ago, supporters of Rep. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo were the ones who offered those arguments when she was arrested amid allegations of election fraud. A court order allowed the former president to post bail eight months later, but the authorities again arrested her in October 2012, for a separate charge of plunder.
De Lima in 2017, Arroyo in 2011. The charges brought against them differ, but some common threads run through their ordeals.
For one, both know what it’s like to be raked over the coals by a newly-installed president out to deliver a campaign promise. Arroyo’s downfall—which we now know to be temporary—bolstered an anti-corruption platform on which then-President Benigno Aquino III had campaigned. De Lima is accused of abetting the illegal drug trade run by some prisoners, supposedly to raise funds for her 2016 campaign.
The charges are non-bailable and fit neatly into President Rodrigo Duterte’s war against illegal drugs.
That some laws were bent in order to reel them in is another thread in these two women’s trials.
Last week, the Department of Justice (DOJ) dropped its cases against five inmates of the New Bilibid Prison so they can serve as state witnesses against de Lima.
The law states that persons previously convicted of “any offense involving moral turpitude” cannot serve as state witnesses. Yet the five on whose shoulders the DOJ’s cases now rest have been convicted of robbery, murder, kidnapping, and illegal drug peddling.
In Arroyo’s case, the Supreme Court (SC) allowed her to go abroad for medical treatment in November 2011.
But the justice department insisted that because it had asked the SC to reconsider, its own order that kept Arroyo from leaving remained in effect. Her dramatic arrest at the airport followed, complete with neck brace, wheelchair, and one lawyer’s undelivered promise to give up one testicle. Senator de Lima should remember this situation well, as she was justice secretary at the time.
Yet not too long ago, Arroyo and de Lima worked as allies in the same administration. In 2009, a year after Arroyo had appointed her to head the Commission on Human Rights (CHR), de Lima began an investigation on a series of killings in Davao City from 2005-2009.
The CHR eventually recommended that the ombudsman’s office investigate then-mayor Duterte, who it said had shown “inaction in the face of evidence of numerous killings in Davao City.”
How this tangled history has shaped recent events is anybody’s guess. But can you blame those who see all this not only as a matter of justice, but also as an elaborate revenge plot?
For de Lima’s supporters, as it was for Arroyo’s supporters half a decade ago, the most practical option is to watch closely while the court proceeds with the senator’s trial. It isn’t much, and yet it will require patience and legal firepower.
Next month, it will have been a year since a think tank headed by former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright made a global call to action to stop violence against women in politics (VAWP).
Do the ordeals of Arroyo and de Lima qualify as cases of VAWP? Given these two women’s agency and their formidable qualifications and connections, it seems devious to try to paint them as victims.
But consider how they were (and, in de Lima’s case, will continue to be) treated: the names they’ve been called in the national conversation, the additional burdens placed on their work as public officials, and the loss of their freedom, no matter how temporary.
One of the ironies of VAWP cases is that sometimes, women play a large role in inflicting violence on one another.