The ban was part of the amendments to the State and Foreign Operations Appropriations section of the budget program put in by US Senators Richard Durbin and Patrick Leahy days before Trump’s signing of the document on Friday.
A section entitled “Prohibition on Entry” states that the Secretary of State “shall apply sub-section (c) to foreign government officials about whom the Secretary has credible information have been involved in the wrongful imprisonment of… Sen. Leila de Lima who was arrested in the Philippines in 2017.”
It called for the same sanctions against officials of the governments of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey for the detention of a US citizen.
Presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo downplayed the development, saying a provision in the law states that before it can be implemented, there has to be credible information proving that De Lima’s detention was wrongful.
De Lima has been in detention at the Philippine National Police Custodial Center at Camp Crame since February 2017 on drug charges.
De Lima and other critics of the administration said a court ordered her arrest on trumped up charges to please President Duterte, whose bloody war on drugs she has openly denounced.
In a hand written statement, the opposition senator expressed her “overwhelming” gratitude to the US Congress.
“This latest development signals the fact that impunity cannot last and that one way or another, justice will catch up with those who choose to do injustice to others. This also signifies a solid recognition by the US government that I am a clear victim of political persecution,” De Lima said.
Durbin communicated yesterday to De Lima’s office the approval of the amendment and Trump’s signing of the bill.
Durbin earlier announced on Twitter the approval of the amendment he passed with Leahy.
“Glad to see the amendment I passed with @SenatorLeahy restricting US visas to all those involved in the troubling detention of Filipina Senator Leila de Lima included in the final FY20 appropriations bill. It’s time for her politically motivated imprisonment to come to an end,” Durbin said on Twitter.
De Lima said it was not only the 2020 US budget that will bolster her case, but also the proposed US Senate Foreign Relations Resolution 142 which, among others, calls on the US president to implement the sanctions provided for in the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act.
Enforcement of the Magnitsky law, she said, should cover members of state security forces and “other Philippine government officials responsible for human rights violations, specifically within the context of Duterte’s drug war.”
She added the Magnitsky Act does not only deny travel visas to subject Philippine officials, but also allows freezing and forfeiture of their US assets, properties and bank accounts.
“Once this (Magnitsky Act) is also implemented, we will witness how the world of human rights violators in the Philippine government increasingly shrinks. This will teach them that human rights is not a domestic concern, but a universal interest that affects the security of all nations, regardless of where the violations occur,” she said.
The “systematic and widespread violation of human rights, like what we experience under the Duterte regime, is not an exercise of sovereignty or independence, it is a crime against humanity that must be condemned and punished with sanctions by the community of nations, as it is now being punished by the US Congress,” she pointed out.
Panelo emphasized the administration is unfazed by the development and will not interfere in the process followed by the US legislature.
“We are not bothered by it. First, it’s their process; we cannot intrude, in the same way that we react when they intrude into our processes. Number two, the very provision says there must be credible information before they ban any official in the Philippines,” he said at a press briefing yesterday.
“But I notice that in that provision that has been approved there is such a colatilla… what does it say here? When the US Secretary of State receives ‘credible information’ in the so-called wrongful imprisonment. In the first place, it’s not a wrongful imprisonment, as we have repeatedly explained,” Panelo said.
He expressed confidence that US State Secretary Mike Pompeo is “better informed and educated” on the Philippines’ internal judicial process compared to the American senators who introduced the provision.
“There must be a credible information; if the information is not credible, then the US Secretary of State will not impose such sanction,” the Palace spokesman said. “That’s precisely what I am saying, there is none.”
Senate President Vicente Sotto III said the approval of the provision has only proven the US habit of meddling in other countries’ justice system “without even investigating.”
Sen. Christopher Go also said the visa ban was a form of US meddling in Philippine affairs.
“Last time I checked, Philippines is not part of the United States. We cannot interfere in the process in US Congress. In the same manner, they should not meddle in our process here in the Philippines, an independent country,” he said.
He added the US officials may have been misinformed.
“Allow me to state that there is no ‘wrongful imprisonment’ of Sen. Leila de Lima. She is detained upon the lawful order of the court. It is even affirmed by no less than our Supreme Court sitting en banc. The drug charges against her went through our judicial process. She was given all opportunities to defend herself. And our courts remain independent and functional,” he added.
He said that while he respects the US decision, he appealed to Washington to “understand where Filipinos are coming from.”
Sen. Richard Gordon, who chairs the Blue Ribbon and the justice committees, said the provision in the US law is as “an intrusion on the internal affairs of our country.” Gordon said he is not afraid that he may be included in the ban.
Sen. Panfilo Lacson, chairman of the committee on national defense and security, shrugged off the threat of a visa ban, saying “allowing and denying the entry of foreigners into the territory of the US, or any country for that matter, is a matter of right of that host country.”
“They don’t even have to justify it,” Lacson said.
What he finds unacceptable, he pointed out, was the resolution of the US foreign relations committee that called for the dismissal of charges against any respondent in a criminal case, in this case, De Lima and Rappler CEO Maria Ressa.
“It (resolution) is an affront to the integrity of our courts and the country’s judicial system. Even the president or any executive official, or any member of our Congress, cannot issue a formal resolution that will encroach on the power of a co-equal branch of government,” Lacson said.
Sen. Francis Tolentino downplayed the effects of what he described as a “wayward” provision in a US law.
“We should respect the immigration laws of the United States. On the other hand, as a sovereign state, the Philippines deserves the appropriate respect for its judicial system and the application of its penal laws within its territory, upon the highest consideration of international comity and as an act of state,” he said. – Cecille Suerte Felipe, Pia Lee-Brago, Alexis Romero