On Distant Shore – Duterte: From prosecution to defense

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By Val G. Abelgas

A brief look at the profile of President Rodrigo Duterteshows that the young Duterte joined the Davao City prosecutor’s office in 1977 and remained there until 1986 when he was appointed the city’s vice mayor in 1986, shortly after the EDSA Revolution, ironically by the government of President Cory Aquino, whose family he has been criticizing since he was elected president in 2016.

Something must have happened on his way to Malacanangbecause immediately upon becoming president, Duterteshifted from someone prosecuting suspects to one who defends high-profile people being accused of wrongdoing.

While he berated in public lower-rung officials for minor and unproven accusations, he has consistently defended close aides and associates even before the Office of the Ombudsman or other agency could open an investigation. 

For example, in 2018, there was a call for the prosecution and dismissal of Solicitor General Jose Calida for conflict of interest after his family-owned Vigilant Investigative and Security Agency Inc. (VISAI) bagged governmentcontracts totaling P150 million with four government agencies.

While Calida said he resigned from his post as president and chairman of the company when he became solicitor general, he admitted that he has not divested his 60% share in the family business.

Instead of ordering Calida to divest his share and resign as Solicitor General as demanded by lawmakers because there was clearly a conflict of interest there, Duterte and his fellow lawyers in Malacanang – Presidential Spokesman Harry Roque and Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra — defended Calida.

“Calida, his security firm has been around for a long time. Why should I fire him? He is good, he is also from Davao but he is an Ilocano,” the President said. “Why? Don’t we have the right to own a business?” Duterte said of his beleaguered loyal ally, fraternity brother and fellow Davaoeno.

Duterte said it was all right for officials to be owners of businesses with contracts with government “as long as you do not participate” directly. “The fact that you have divested, you have retired… So why do you have to impute or attribute malice there?”

But, Mister President, the guy admitted he still had 60% share in the firm, basically giving him complete control of the company and the biggest share of the profit from the transaction. Wasn’t he in clear violation of Republic Act No. 6713 or the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards forPublic Officials and Employees?

It was obviously a successful defense by the prosecutor-turned-defense lawyer because nothing came out of the case.

The President has defended or has refused to prosecute many loyal allies, including Customs officials identified by a whistleblower as the ones who connived with the smugglers of P6.4 billion worth of shabu; PNP Superintendent Marvin Marcos who was recommended by the Senate to be charged with the murder of Albuera Mayor Rolando Espinosa Jr.; then PNP Director General and now Sen. Ronald de la Rosa and several police officials, who were accused of extrajudicial killing of thousands of alleged drug users; and again Customs and MICT officials who were implicated by then PDEA Aaron Aquino in his report on the smuggling of P6.8 billion worth of shabu, a report that the President dismissed as “pure speculation”; and a few others.

When the United States canceled the visa of De la Rosa for the latter’s alleged role in thousands of unsolved killings, Duterte immediately came to the defense of his loyal friend and exploded: “I’m warning you. This is the first time. Kapag hindi ninyo ginawa ang correction diyan [If you do not correct that], one: I will terminate the Visiting Forces Agreement. Tapusin ko ‘yan pu**** in*** yan [I’ll end that son of a bitch],” Duterte told a crowd of supporters in Leyte.

As a result of that outburst, the Visiting Forces Agreement remain under threat of outright termination, luckily and tentatively saved by the need for US vaccines.

But the biggest beneficiaries of Duterte’s defense skills are clearly China and its president Xi Jin-ping, and Health Secretary Francisco Duque III.

After boasting during the presidential campaign that he would jet ski to the disputed islands, plant the Philippine flag and challenge the Chinese – “barilan o suntukan?” – Duterte has not only allowed China to trample on our sovereignty in our territorial waters but has actually joked that the Philippines could be a province of China.

And instead of fighting for Philippine sovereignty that was backed by a favorable ruling from the Permanent Court of Arbitration that rejected China’s sweeping claim over almost the entire South China Sea and upheld the Philippines’ territorial claim based on the 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone, the President defended his diplomacy of friendship with China.

“What else do you want? What will I do with a document that (does) not bind China because they were never a part of that arbitration? There was really no arbitration at all because only the Philippine side was heard,” the president said, describing the PCA ruling as just waste paper that he could throw into the wastebasket, echoing the very line used by China.

In many instances, Duterte has defended securing loans from China, purchasing the Chinese vaccine Sinovac, the Chinese telecom deal, the granting of permits to Chinese POGOs, the swarm of Chinese workers into the country, against a Reuters report blaming China for the drug problem in the Philippines, and many more issues.

In addition, Duterte has come to the defense of Chinese leader Xi Jinping on several occasions. He defended his friend Xi from accusations that the latter committed crimes against humanity in the South China Sea when a complaint was filed against Xi before the United Nations. Calling China a friend, he said that China is not after Philippine territory, and has not asked for anything in return for weapons and aid.

Recently, Duterte the defender again showed he will defend a friend to death as he has consistently shown in his many defense of Health Secretary Duque, who faced calls from lawmakers, health workers and the people for his dismissal or resignation, first for the government’s failed response to the Covid-19 pandemic, and later, for “criminal negligence” for failure to disburse billions of pandemic funds, and for various questionable transactions in the purchase of Covid-19 supplies and in the disbursement of other pandemic-related funds as shown by various COA audit reports. The President insisted Duque still had his trust and that he would continue to defend him even if it brought him down.

Duterte ignored all the complaints and accusations that have followed Duque from the time he was the head of the controversial PhilHealth. Instead, he described Duque as “a hardworking government official.”

Duterte also came to the defense of his former economic adviser, Michael Yang, and former Budget Undersecretary Christopher Lao, who were linked to the P8.7 billion purchase of allegedly overpriced facemasks, face shields and other medical supplies. He said there was nothing anomalous about the purchases.

Instead of ordering an investigation into the questioned purchases and the other findings of the COA, Dutertelambasted the COA and the senators probing into the controversial contracts, and even threatening to find dirt against them.

Duterte even beat Pharmally Pharmaceutical Corp’s hotshot lawyer, Raymund Fortun, to the defense of the accused. “The senators kept looking for the technical and financial requirements of Pharmally. I don’t care about it. Pharmallyis really a Pharmally corporation in Singapore. That is where it provides,” he said in his usual mixed English and Filipino.

“What is clear is there was a contract, there was delivery, specifications are complete. The Philippines paid after the delivery,” he added.

Spoken like a true defense lawyer, far from being a former prosecutor.

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