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Philippine President Blinks, Says Will Abide with Law in Battle with Senator

Karl Romano and Luis Liwanag
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Embattled Philippine Sen. Antonio Trillanes talks to reporters during a news conference in the Senate building in Manila, Sept. 7, 2018.
Embattled Philippine Sen. Antonio Trillanes talks to reporters during a news conference in the Senate building in Manila, Sept. 7, 2018.
Luis Liwanag/BenarNews

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte backed down Friday from his order instructing security forces to arrest an opposition senator whose amnesty he had revoked, saying he would abide with the rule of law by obtaining a warrant first.

Duterte’s decision to strip Sen. Antonio Trillanes of an amnesty, which shielded the lawmaker and former navy officer from prosecution over his past role in two military rebellions, sparked a political crisis after the presidential proclamation was made public on Tuesday.

During a visit to the Middle East on Friday, Duterte met with top aides to discuss what to do about the senator, a leading critic of the president’s bloody war on drugs.

“After a long discussion, the president says he will abide by the rule of law,” presidential spokesman Harry Roque said in a nationally televised news conference from Jordan.

“He will allow the judicial process to proceed and he will wait for the issuance of [an] appropriate warrant of arrest before Senator Trillanes is arrested.”

At the same time, the Defense Department and military issued separate statements saying they would respect the civilian courts.

The development signaled a temporary victory for Trillanes, who had holed himself up in the Senate building in defiance of Duterte’s proclamation and arrest order. The latest presidential move came a day after Trillanes filed a petition before the Supreme Court seeking an injunction against the proclamation.

In his proclamation, Duterte cancelled a presidential amnesty granted to Trillanes by his predecessor, Benigno Aquino, saying Trillanes had failed to submit documents required for the legal protection.

Trillanes rejected those allegations and made public documents that supported his amnesty application.

Earlier on Friday, Trillanes said he had met with some military officers who told him that they wanted to be “apolitical.” The senator declined to name names, but claimed the officers were aware they were being used as pawns in a game pitting him against Duterte.

While there were no plans to break away from the chain of command, Trillanes said, the officers were “conflicted” by the issue even as they expressed loyalty to their constitutional mandate.

Trillanes’ application for amnesty, which was shown to reporters, stated clearly that the senator had admitted guilt and remorse for joining in or leading mutinies.

The amnesty was for two bloodless uprisings that Trillanes, now 47, had played a key role in.

In 2003, he along with 300 other officers and men took over the luxurious Oakwood Hotel in Manila’s Makati financial district to protest what they claimed was massive corruption in the armed forces. The rebellion ended swiftly when then-President Gloria Arroyo vowed to look into their complaints.

Four years later, in 2007, Trillanes and the other officers walked out of a civilian court that was hearing their case for the earlier mutiny. They holed up at the Peninsula Hotel, but again the mutiny quickly fizzled out when the military drove a tank into the hotel’s lobby.

On Friday, Trillanes said he had told his former colleagues in the armed forces to stay on the sidelines, arguing that it was a political move on Duterte’s part.

“I have had engagements with some active members of the armed forces and they expressed concern about what was happening,” Trillanes said. “They do not want to be a part of this political exercise by Mr. Duterte. They want to be professional. They know that I am just being singled out.”

He declined to name the officers, or say how influential they are in the force.

He said he had the support of “active officers” within the military, and that they would come out in public “when the time is ripe.”

The unnamed officers also did not need to go out because “they already have representatives in us,” Trillanes said, adding that the officers were helping provide him with “critical information.”

“Our democratic institutions are being destroyed,” by Duterte, the senator said. “The one who applied extra-constitutional means was Duterte. This is against the constitution.”

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