US senator’s aide says hard for US Secretary of State to ignore Congress directive

Mike Navallo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Dec 30 2019 03:53 PM | Updated as of Dec 30 2019 09:02 PM

US Senators Dick Durbin and Patrick Leahy (right) take up the cudgels for Sen. Leila de Lima. From the official websites of US Senators Dick Durbin and Patrick Leahy

MANILA—An influential staff member of US Sen. Patrick Leahy who pushed for a ban on Philippine officials behind the detention of Sen. Leila de Lima has confirmed a congressional directive to “apply the law" in the senator's case.

Tim Rieser, foreign policy aide of Senator Patrick Leahy, told ABS-CBN News that Leahy and his colleague Richard Durbin included a provision in the US Senate appropriations committee report that accompanies the annual appropriations bill directing the US Secretary of State to apply the law banning human rights violators from entering American soil to De Lima’s case.

The same provision classified “unjust or wrongful detention” as part of “gross violation of human rights,” making it a ground for applying the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, a US law which authorizes the US government to sanction those who it sees as human rights offenders, freeze their assets, and ban them from entering the US.

“That language was included by reference in the final version of the conference agreement that was negotiated by the House and the Senate and enacted a week ago,” Rieser said.

"It means that the Secretary should look at the information that Senator Leahy and Senator Durbin and other members of the House and Senate believe is credible."

Pro-Duterte bloggers Sass Rogando Sasot and RJ Nieto or Thinking Pinoy earlier questioned the absence of De Lima’s name in the spending bill that US President Donald Trump signed into law on December 20, casting doubt on the legitimacy of the news about the US entry ban.

De Lima, however, said the explanatory statement of the law states that unless specifically negated, the language in the US House and Senate reports on the bill remains in force.

The Congressional record of the US 2020 consolidated budget directed the State Department to comply with the directives, reporting requirements and instructions in the Senate and House reports.

Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo on Sunday confirmed the ban, citing his conversation with Philippine Ambassador to the US Babe Romualdez.

But Nieto continued to question whether the ban was based only on the Magnitsky clause that he said has been in US budget laws since 2015 or if it was a result of an amendment introduced by US senators Richard Durbin and Patrick Leahy, which he maintains, does not exist.

Rieser confirmed that the controversial clause has indeed been in US budget laws for years now but stressed that the difference now is US Congress specified that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo apply it to De Lima.

“They are correct to the extent that 7031(c) has been in effect for years. Senator Leahy wrote it. It applies globally. However, what’s different is that the Congress is saying that the Secretary shall apply the law in this particular case. That didn’t exist before,” he said.

“To suggest that it is more of the same is to ignore the fact that this year, Congress zeroed in on her case specifically by name, and directed the Secretary to make a determination.”

'HARD TO IGNORE CONGRESS DIRECTIVE'

Rieser said that ultimately, it will be up to Pompeo to implement the congressional directive.

“He could ignore the Congress but it’s not easy to do that when there are multiple, credible sources saying that she is imprisoned because the government is trying to silence her as a result of her criticism of the government’s policies,” he said.

Rieser explained that the provision “was not inserted in the dark of night or in secret or in some manner that wasn’t known. It was done in the usual way that was public, it was reviewed, it was discussed, and it was agreed to.”

He stressed that concern for De Lima’s rights prompted the 2 US senators to propose the amendment.

“Senator De Lima, as you know, has been in prison now for 2 years and has yet to be proven guilty of anything. Senator Leahy is not aware of any credible evidence that has been brought forward against her. Nor has she had the opportunity to defend herself in a trial that would meet international standards,” he said.

“Simply asserting that she is being afforded due process means nothing unless she’s actually being given the opportunity to know the evidence against her and defend herself in an impartial proceeding,” he added.

Philippine Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra on Sunday insisted that no less than the Philippine Supreme Court had upheld the charges against De Lima and that she is undergoing a fair public trial. He said he will invite and allow the legal staff of the US senators to go over the court records and transcripts of De Lima’s cases instead of relying on “second-hand” reports which are, at worst, “multiple hearsay.”

RESPONSE TO PH GOVERNMENT THREAT

Malacañang responded to the US entry ban by banning the 2 US senators from entering the country and threatening to impose visa requirements on US citizens visiting the Philippines. US citizens currently enjoy 30-day visa-free stay in the country.

In a statement Sunday, Leahy called the response irrational.

“Rather than responding by irrationally threatening to deny visas to American citizens, the Duterte government should either release Senator De Lima immediately or provide her the fair, public trial she is entitled to,” he said.

“Sen. Leahy is not interested in denying, or in having the Secretary deny, visas to anybody. What he’s interested in is justice for Senator De Lima,” Rieser said, explaining his boss’ reaction.

“And if the Philippine government’s response is to say it will deny visas to all American citizens, who have nothing to do with the imprisonment of Senator De Lima, that’s the response of a government that has no justifiable explanation for why it is detaining her for over two years, other than to say she’s being afforded due process. How is she being afforded due process? What due process? Why is she in prison? Why has she not been released on bail? What is the evidence against her?,” he asked.

Leahy is one of 5 US legislators who called for De Lima’s release.

He served as prosecutor for 8 years before joining the Senate, where he served as senior minority member of the Senate Judiciary committee.

“[H]e’s very familiar with judicial matters and with criminal procedure and with the rights of accused individuals. And for him, the first amendment and freedom of expression and the right to criticize one’s government is fundamental. Whether it’s our own government’s or other government’s attempt to intimidate or silence those who express views that the government disagrees with, and who are subjected to threats or unlawful imprisonment, Senator Leahy believes it is everybody’s responsibility to speak out about that,” Rieser said.

Rieser himself is an influential figure in Capitol Hill, having served for 3 decades. He is widely regarded as one of the most powerful staffers presiding over US foreign policy and US foreign assistance.

In 2016, Virginia-based American political opinion company Politico named him as one of the 50 thinkers, doers and visionaries transforming American politics, having acted as back-channel that led to the prisoner exchange between the US and Cuba and the resumption of their diplomatic ties.