Lawmakers across regions and human rights defenders from different corners of the globe have shown support to opposition Senator Leila M. de Lima in her plea that she be allowed to fully discharge her mandate as a duly elected Senator, including her right to attend Senate sessions via teleconferencing.
This development came after the leadership of the Philippine Senate decided to exclude De Lima from attending online sessions which was intended as a temporary safety measure against the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Senator Leila De Lima’s voice is needed more than ever to defend democracy in The Philippines. Parliamentarians for Global Action (PGA) joins allies worldwide in demanding that she be allowed to participate in legislative proceedings,” PGA, an international alliance of legislators, said in a statement.
Canadian Senator Anita Vandenbeld shared the same view, when she tweeted that “[Senator de Lima] should be allowed to take her seat using audio-visual technology and speak during parliamentary sessions via teleconference.”
“Denying [De Lima] the possibility to join Senate sessions online is yet another attempt at silencing her and preventing her from fully exercising her mandate as a directly-elected representative,” said Charles Santiago, a Malaysian Parliamentarian and Chairperson of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR).
He added: “The continued exclusion of Senator de Lima from Senate sessions is ridiculous. Since all Senators will be able to join parliamentary sessions from their home through online teleconferencing, there are no plausible reasons to prevent [De Lima] to do so from her prison cell.”
“Rodrigo Duterte’s government has this week joined the ranks of other illiberal governments around the world. Like Orban’s Hungary or Putin’s Russia, President Duterte has exploited the COVID-19 lockdown to gag free speech and silence human rights defenders. He is now the newest member of a crooked club of COVID collaborators,” Hakima El Haite, President of Liberal International, said.
“Sen. De Lima has long-continued her political service while being detained as a prisoner of conscience. The Duterte’s government thinks it has found a new way to deny Filipinos represented by Leila their constitutional rights and is exploiting the pandemic catastrophe to silence her,” she added.
Last May 4, in a plenary session, the Philippine Senate amended its rules to allow the attendance of its members via teleconferencing during extraordinary times, such as the current enhanced community quarantine in Metro Manila as a response to the pandemic.
The online sessions have enabled members of the Senate to discuss, deliberate and vote on proposed measures from the safety of their own homes, especially on key issues related to the government’s response to the ongoing pandemic.
“The decision to prevent Senator De Lima from exercising her mandate reflects a clear attempt to restrict her right to freedom of expression and to silence the voice of a lawmaker involved in the defense of human rights in the Philippines,” added Alice Mogwe, President of Paris-based International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH), the oldest human rights organization in the world.
Chiming in, Gerald Staberock, Secretary-General of the World Organization Against Torture, said that the decision to disallow De Lima from participating remotely in Senate proceedings “has no legal basis and represents the latest act of persecution against her.”
Citing jurisdictional issues, the Senate leadership claims that De Lima will not be able to enjoy the same privilege of her colleagues because she is under the authority of the Courts and the Philippine National Police (PNP)
Some legal experts, lawmakers and political experts however disagreed. According to Liberal Party President and opposition Senator Francis Pangilinan: “What the Supreme Court earlier ruled against is the physical presence of the person in detention in sessions and committee meetings. It did not prohibit a person from participation in sessions and hearings through electronic means.”
“Performing her job as senator as long as she can do this inside the detention facility is part of her rights. Thus, there is no constitutional or legal impediment to disallow Senator de Lima from taking part in the online sessions, hearings, and meetings of the Senate,” Atty. Antonio La Viña, former Dean of the Ateneo School of Government, added.
EveryWoman, a progressive group advocating for women’s rights, as well as the Committee for the Freedom of Leila de Lima have published similar statements to let the lady Senator from Bicol join online Senate sessions.
Calls of support were also offered by other fellow progressive women lawmakers from other countries, including Jayanthi Balaguru, incumbent chairperson of the Council of Asian Liberal and Democrats (CALD) Women’s Caucus; and Emily Lau, a former Hongkong Legislator.
De Lima, who is in her fourth year in detention, have constantly received serious international backing since her detention in 2017. Last February 2020, over 500 local and foreign individuals and groups have called for her immediate release from arbitrary detention as well as the dismissal of the trumped-up charges filed against her. (30)