By William Casis | FilAm Star Correspondent
With 16-4 vote against her, Sen. Leila de Lima was ousted as chair of the Senate Justice and Human Rights Committee, which has been conducting Senate hearings into the alleged extra-judicial killings of 3,000 since Rodrigo Duterte became president.
De Lima was evicted from her post when she presented in the September 15 hearing Edgar Matobato, a self-confessed hitman of the Davao Death Squad. Matobato also accused President Duterte of ordering the killings of almost a thousand suspected criminals and personal enemies during his term as Davao City mayor.
Hours after De Lima was removed, Duterte finally broke his silence about Matobato’s testimony in the Senate and told reporters, “ If you know it’s a lie and you have a person who testify (with the lie), you are an active participant. That is subornation of evidence. It’s a serious crime.”
De Lima said, “while I respect my colleagues, perhaps, I can say that I understand what they did. But I will repeat it again, it’s impossible that the President has nothing to do with this.”
“He was already mad at me. I mean, he was not concealing his anger at me when I started this inquiry such that I was humiliated, there were below the belt accusations hurled at me and there was a statement like ‘you’re finished,’” she said.
De Lima did not deny she was terribly hurt when she was stripped of the chairmanship although she would continue as a member of the committee. The other members include Senators Alan Peter Cayetano, Manny Pacquiao, Juan Miguel Zubiri, Francis Pangilinan and Grace Poe.
De Lima was replaced by Sen. Richard Gordon, also Chair of the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee. Sen. Panfilo Lacson, chair of the senate public order committee, was elected as the committee vice-chairperson.
While the House of Representatives would still investigate her alleged drug links when she still the secretary of the Department of Justice, De Lima said she hoped her colleagues in the Senate, would not add more pressure against her if they could not come to her defense.
Her party mates at the Liberal Party (LP) stood by De Lima: Senate President Pro-Tempore Franklin Drilon, Senators Risa Hontiveros, Pangilinan, and Paolo Benigno Aquino IV.
Aquino said the vote that transpired was unnecessary and unprecedented. “Now, our institution’s independence is seriously put to the test. The new leadership of the committee on Justice must show that it is fair, unbiased and committed to bringing out the truth at all costs,” he said.
Minority Leader Ralph Recto and Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV abstained from voting.
Although Senator Joel Villanueva ran under the LP ticket in the May 9 elections, he voted against De Lima, who filed a case against him in connection with the alleged pork barrel scam.
Aside from Villanueva, the 15 other senators who voted to remove De Lima as chair of fhe justice commitee are: Senate President Aquilino Pimentel III, Senate Majority Floor Leader Vicente Sotto III, Cayetano, Gordon, Lacson, Zubiri, Sen. Sherwin Gatchalian, Sen. Gregorio Honasan, Sen. Sonny Angara, Sen. Joseph Victor Ejercito, Pacquiao, Sen. Loren Legarda, Poe, Sen. Cynthia Villar and Sen. Nancy Binay.
Sotto said what happened to the Committee on Justice should serve as an example that the Senate should remain objective and perform its mandate in the name of the law. A call was made for the senators not to use their committees as a venue to besmirch anyone, to remain impartial and not to allow anyone to use the chamber for grandstanding and mud-slinging.
Interviewed after her ouster, De Lima said the Senate is now turning to be a “rubber-stamp house which is definitely not good for the Senate and the country.
“Why? Is this good for the Senate and the country? With due respect to them I disagree. I think the reverse is true,” said De Lima.
She contradicted the pronouncement of Pimentel that the decision to reorganize the Committee would be good for the chamber and the country.
Since she is no longer chair of the justice committee, De Lima doubted that the body would still focus on the main subject of the investigation which is the alleged extra-judicial killings in the country.
During the past hearings of the Committee, she emphasized that some senators were focused on the gains of the administration in its fight against illegal drugs instead of the alleged extra-judicial killings.
“Now that I am no longer the chair, the witnesses will no longer be interested to fully partcipate with the Committee. I will not influence the witnesses. But if that will happen, I will no longer be surprised,” she said.
She noted that some of her colleagues did not even want to admit that there were extra-judicial killings in the country under the Duterte administration.
An hour before the voting, Cayetano, Duterte’s defeated running mate in 2016 elections – expressed intention to start his privilege speech. However, Drilon, moved that the session be suspended.
With both Cayetano and Drilon insisting on their respective motions, Pimentel put the matter to a vote. Majority of the senators voted to allow Cayetano to continue speaking.
In his privilege speech, Cayetano blamed De Lima and her allies for “misleading” international media on the real status of the extra-judicial killings in the country.
“We might all lose these wars, but the biggest loser will not be Duterte. It will be the economy, the political institutions, and the entire nation. So why sit by and just watch? Why allow our institutions to be used that way?” he lamented.
“There are 24 senators here. There are 30 committees. Sen. De Lima is a very talented senator, a very experienced lawyer, an efficient public servant, she can handle so many other committees, Mr President,” Cayetano said.
Pacquiao, a party mate of the President, then took the floor and moved that the chamber declare the chairmanship as well as the membership of the committee on justice and human rights vacant.
Drilon objected to the motion, which prompted the suspension of the session and the holding of a senators’ caucus.
When the session resumed, the chamber immediately put to a vote the motion. Drilon raised anew his objection which was seconded by Hontiveros.
“We register our objection. We believe there’s no basis for the motion,” Drilon said.
Hontiveros said: “On behalf of Akbayan party, I respectfully register my objection.”
Pimentel III then decided to divide the chamber and made the roll call vote.
After the voting, Drilon and Hontiveros took turns on the floor to put on record their opposition to the ouster of De Lima.
Recto stated that they deemed it best to leave the decision to the majority as that is not the issue of the minority bloc.
In his acceptance speech, Gordon said he is “honored” to have been chosen to head the panel. He claimed he did not “lobby” for the position.
Gordon had earlier said he would file a bill for Congress to allow Duterte to suspend
the writ of habeas corpus to fight illegal drugs and terrorism in the country. However, he backtracked on his plan after being criticized and strongly denied his statement on the matter given to the media in an interview.
Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch Deputy Asia Director Phelim Kine described De Lima’s ouster as a blatant and craven move to derail accountability for the appalling death toll from Duterte’s abusive “war on drugs.”
“The Senate is showing greater interest in covering up allegations of state-sanctioned murder than in exposing them. De Lima’s inquiry faced relentless harassment, intimidation and threats from Duterte, a measure of his fear of accountability for the killing spree on Philippine city streets that has killed more than 3,000 Filipinos since he took office on June 30,” said Kine.
Kine said that De Lima’s removal seems intended to cancel the Senate inquiry she initiated into those killings and removes the sole significant official effort to bring them to an end.
Kine noted that De Lima’s ouster also renews serious doubts about the Duterte administration’s willingness to respect the basic human rights of Filipinos under the constitution and international human rights law.
“Senators opposed to the Duterte government’s trampling on those rights should urgently seek Senator de Lima’s immediate reinstatement,” also said Kine.