MANILA, Philippines – The Philippine Bar Association (PBA) and human rights group Karapatan denounced on Tuesday President Rodrigo Duterte’s order barring Cabinet members from participating in a Senate inquiry on the government’s allegedly irregular transactions with Pharmally Pharmaceutical Corp., saying it was unconstitutional and an attempt to cover up corruption.
In separate statements, the two groups also condemned Duterte’s directive to the police and military to ignore warrants of arrests issued by the senators against persons declared in contempt for noncooperation by the Senate blue ribbon committee, which is leading the inquiry.
‘Detrimental to people’
“We are of the considered view that the directive of President Duterte, acting as Chief Executive, [upsets] our system of checks and balances and transgresses the doctrine of separation of powers among the three branches of government,” said the PBA, the oldest national organization of lawyers in the country.
The presidential directive, which is contained in an Oct. 4 memorandum signed by Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea, is “detrimental to our people exacting public accountability” for alleged irregularities in the use of public funds “during a pandemic that has cost countless Filipino lives,” it said.
Karapatan said any issue that involved the use of the people’s money, especially during a national health emergency, was a matter of public interest.
“Stifling investigations into these issues infringes upon the public’s right to know,” the group said.
Defending Duterte, presidential spokesperson Harry Roque said the directive was based on “the premise that the principle of separation of powers requires mutual respect” while all branches of government act to protect and promote the right to health of the people during the current national state of calamity due to COVID-19.
“Having said this, officials and employees should focus all their time and effort in addressing the challenges of the pandemic by performing their functions with utmost responsibility, integrity, and efficiency,” Roque said in a statement, indicating that the Senate hearings drew the officials’ attention from the pandemic.
Attempt at cover-up
But Karapatan Secretary General Cristina Palabay said the president’s directive was “nothing more than a desperate attempt to cover up what now appears to be a widescale corruption scandal involving his men.”
She asked the senators to exact accountability from “those who pocket public funds at the expense of people’s lives.”
The PBA also viewed Duterte’s directive to the police and the military as an “undue impairment of legislative prerogatives and violates the doctrine of separation of powers.”
The directive, it added, “unjustifiably reduces them into political pawns used as shields … [and] is a disservice in the principle of civilian supremacy over the military.”
The group appealed to the president, who is also a lawyer, to “immediately recall his twin directives that in our view constitute clear violations of our Constitution.”
“We must all stand and denounce any act of political expediency that erodes the rule of law,” it said.
What happened to ‘whiff’?
The PBA reminded Duterte that he had promised not to tolerate even a “whiff of corruption” in his administration.
It added that the Supreme Court had already affirmed the Senate’s oversight function and power to enforce its own rules.
“That the ongoing investigation focuses on alleged anomalies in the use of huge amounts of public funds … makes the quest for public accountability of vital importance,” the PBA stressed.
“The directive is detrimental to our people exacting public accountability from (the) officials of the executive department,” it said.
The lawyers said the president’s instruction to the military and the police was against the principle of civilian supremacy over the armed services.
“We should be mindful that an unlawful order invites disobedience and challenge,” they warned.
—WITH A REPORT FROM LEILA B. SALAVERRIA
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