MANILA—The dispute between US Sen. Patrick Leahy and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s spokesman is showing no signs of slowing down.
Leahy's camp has fired back at presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo after the latter called the Vermont lawmaker "ignorant" for saying the incarceration of Sen. Leila De Lima was a "wrongful imprisonment."
"As Mr. Panelo knows, human rights are universal, and each of us has a responsibility to defend them. Rather than respond to his personal attacks, we would refer him to the Trump administration’s latest human rights report of the US State Department on the Philippines," Leahy's spokesman David Carle said in an email to ABS-CBN News.
Extrajudicial killings, rights abuses and threats against independent media continued under Duterte's administration in 2018, the US said in its annual Human Rights report.
"Corruption through nepotism, personal connections and sometimes bribery continued to result in relative impunity for wealthy or influential offenders," Carle said, quoting the 2018 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices.
The report also mentioned De Lima's arrest, saying prosecutors used a variety of legal tactics to delay her arraignment.
"Her case attracted widespread domestic and international attention, with many observers denouncing the charges as politically motivated," part of the report read.
Leahy's camp urged the Philippine government to give De Lima, a fierce critic of the Duterte administration, a fair trial.
"If the evidence is as strong as Mr. Panelo claims, then the government should promptly produce it in a fair, public trial, as due process requires, so Senator De Lima can defend herself," Carle said.
De Lima has been detained since Feb. 2017 for allegedly pocketing drug payoffs from convicted crime lords when she was still justice secretary—an allegation she dubbed as "political persecution."
The senator is not entitled to bail and if found guilty, faces a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.
Leahy earlier blasted Panelo for saying the US is meddling with the Philippines over a proposed travel ban against officials behind the imprisonment of De Lima.
"...When Philippine officials abuse the justice system for the purpose of political retribution, we have a responsibility to respond," he said.
Leahy's comments did not sit well with Panelo, calling the US senator ignorant.
"In citing abuse of Philippine officials without an iota of proof, he was speaking not only of blissful ignorance but unscented abuse," Duterte's spokesman said.
Leahy, together with Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, filed an amendment in the 2020 State and Foreign Operations (SFOPs) appropriations bill to deny entry of any Philippine government officials involved in De Lima's imprisonment.
The US Senate Appropriations Committee approved the amendment, which states that "the Secretary of State shall apply subsection [prohibition on entry] to foreign government officials about whom the Secretary has credible information have been involved in the wrongful imprisonment of... Senator Leila de Lima who was arrested in the Philippines in 2017."—With a report from TJ Manotoc, ABS-CBN News