Philippines’ de Lima Arrest may Signal Wreckage of Pork Barrel Case

There is rising concern in Manila that President Rodrigo Duterte is about to wreck the prosecution of one of the biggest scandals in the history of the Philippines, a country replete with huge scandals.

On Feb. 15, the country’s solicitor general, Jose Calida, in effect nullified a guilty verdict by a local court in a case against Janet Lim Napoles, the central figure in the 2013 Pork Barrel scandal, in which as many as 100 lawmakers were discovered to have been siphoning off money from public development funds. Sources in Manila say the nullification on one of three charges against Napoles wouldn’t have happened without the president’s say-so.

Part of the concern is because three of the lawyers for Napoles are Duterte associates and one in fact was named to a high government position. Another part of the concern is that by crippling the case, Duterte is striking a blow against Leila de Lima, his principal foe in his grotesque drug war, whom he has vowed to destroy. As expected, a Manila suburban court issued an arrest warrant for de Lima today (Feb. 23) along with her driver and lover, Ronnie Dayan, and the former chief of corrections, Rafael Marcos Ragos.

Duterte and de Lima have clashed since 2009, when as chairperson of the Philippine Human Rights Commission she attempted to investigate extrajudicial killings when Duterte was mayor of Davao City. Charges have been filed against de Lima, her driver and others on charges she has been involved with the sale of illegal drugs.

Human Rights Watch has called the charges politically motivated and trumped up via testimony from inmates at New Bilibid Prison, the country’s principal such institution, who, HRW charged, were paid for through allowing them use of smart television sets, air conditioning units and internet and cellphones and other privileges as a reward for their testimony against her.

In the Napoles case, Calida said the Regional Trial Court had erred in finding Napoles guilty of kidnapping her nephew, Benhur Luy, and holding him incognito after Luy had threatened to go to the law with evidence of the lawmakers’ theft of public money. The solicitor general asserted that Luy was not detained against his will as Luy had claimed and that in fact he resisted being freed by NBI agents, a statement contradicted by testimony from the prosecution. Because he is one of the most important witnesses in the Pork Barrel matter, say legal scholars in the Philippines, his larger credibility in the case has been put in doubt.

There are two remaining charges for “malversation,” a Filipino charge of corruption, and plunder remaining against Napoles in the Pork Barrel case. The influential news website Rappler, which is carrying on its own struggle with Duterte, reported on Feb. 15 that the three Napoles lawyers are staunch Duterte supporters and that one, Lanee Cui-David, was named a deputy commissioner in the Philippines Bureau of Internal Revenue.

The Pork Barrel case was brought during de Lima’s tenure as justice secretary under former President Benigno S. Aquino III. It was first exposed by the Philippine Daily Inquirer in 2013 after Benhur Luy was rescued by National Bureau of Investigation agents four months after Napoles locked him up in a condo in the Fort Bonifacio district of Manila. It was later estimated that the government had been defrauded of as much as PHP10 billion (US$198.8 million at current exchange rates) which was diverted to Napoles as well as members of the Senate and House and other government officials. Another ₱HP900 million in royalties earned from the Malampaya gas field are also believed to have been lost to the scam.

Napoles remains imprisoned on the two other charges for making herself and her family massively rich after she set up a series of phony NGOs that were the recipients of the so-called Priority Development Assistance Funds, which then allegedly recycled back to the lawmakers in cash after Napoles took a 30 percent cut. Youtube pictures of the family’s fabulous wealth enraged the public at large.

Enter de Lima, who filed cases against Napoles, senators Ramon Revilla Jr., Juan Ponce Enrile, Jinggoy Estrada and five former representatives. The case has now languished in the Sandiganbayan, a special appellate court to handle corruption cases, which has a backlog of at least seven years of cases. A bid to impel the House of Representatives to conduct a probe was refused, with the Speaker, Feliciano Belmonte, saying such an investigation would be “messy.”

De Lima first ran afoul of Duterte after she was appointed chairperson of the Philippine Human Rights Commission in 2008 and set out to investigate charges that Duterte ran death squads as mayor of Davao City to cleanse the city of criminals and drug users. According to one witness before a Senate committee, Duterte ordered his men to ambush de Lima as she and her team sought in 2009 to investigate vigilante action in Davao City, where as many as 1,000 drug users or sellers were murdered by death squads. However, the witness said, de Lima and her team detoured and didn’t go past the ambush site.

On her election to the Senate in July 2016, de Lima was named chair of a Senate Justice and Human Rights Committee and immediately called hearings into Duterte’s new drug war, which began even before he became President, with over-enthusiastic cops and vigilantes murdering hundreds of drug users or sellers, most of them the poor in the Philippines’ teaming slums.

Those hearings included testimony from a former hitman who alleged he had killed as many as 50 people on Duterte’s orders when the latter was mayor of Davao City. Duterte intensified his attacks.

As Human Rights Watch pointed out earlier this week in a prepared news release from New York, “Days after (de Lima’s) hearings began, Duterte launched the first of a series of attacks on de Lima’s personal integrity by claiming the senator was having an affair with her married driver. She later acknowledged the affair.

A series of hearings in the legislature by de Lima’s foe featured Bilibid inmates and others appearing to implicate de Lima in the sale of drug to use the money in her Senate campaign. Later, according to HRW, Duterte told a crowd of supporters that de Lima should commit suicide: “If I were de Lima, ladies and gentlemen, I’ll hang myself,” he said. Over the past six months Duterte has continued his personal attacks against de Lima, referring to her “odious character” and repeatedly asserting that she will “rot in jail.”

Eventually, the Senate – now in Duterte’s hands – voted to remove her from her position as head of the committee. She was accused by pro-Duterte lawmakers of being “biased” against the president. The lawmakers also disclosed her personal cell number, resulting in thousands of threatening text messages.

Many regard Duterte as erratic, reacting to criticism with invective, threatening to end the historic alliance with the United States over the Obama administration’s criticism of his drug war, which has taken some 7,000 lives via extrajudicial killings. He has largely ignored a decision against China in the International Court of Arbitration in The Hague which established legal grounds to oppose Chinese hegemony in the South China Sea.

Nonetheless, he remains phenomenally popular with rank and file Filipinos, with the last Pulse Asia poll at the start of January giving him 83 percent trust and approval. Average Filipinos tell Asia Sentinel they feel safe on the streets today in ways they hadn’t for decades.

“The politically motivated case against de Lima shows how Duterte ‘s ‘war on drugs’ threatens not only the thousands of people targeted, but the criminal justice and political systems,” said Human Rights Watch Director Phelim Kine in New York. “It’s more important than ever that concerned lawmakers and foreign governments step up to denounce the Duterte administration’s disregard for basic human rights.”

De Lima has described herself potentially as the administration’s first “political prisoner.” On ethe other hand, Philippine politics being Philippine politics, no widespread arrests are expected of any more of the 100-odd lawmakers and others with their hands in the government till who stole more than US$200 million during the Pork Barrel affair. Given the solicitor general’s advice on the Napoles charge, that could be the end of it.