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The Senate Standoff: How Duterte’s Attempt to Arrest Another Critic Is Testing Philippine Democracy

11 minute read

On Sept. 13, nine days after Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte revoked the amnesty enjoyed by Senator Antonio Trillanes IV, a man wearing the senator’s black suit jacket barreled through the doors and briefly appeared in the Senate’s ground floor parking lot. One of the armed guards flanking the decoy held up a folder to hide his face. Another bundled him into the backseat of Trillanes’ waiting Toyota Land Cruiser. Its driver cleared several loose .22 TCM clips from the passenger seat as a walkie-talkie fuzzed with instructions to move out.

Up close, the decoy Trillanes did not look much like the man he was impersonating. “I’m too short” he complained from the back seat, removing his baseball cap behind the safety of the car’s tints. The vehicle was heading to Manila’s international airport to test the military’s response should the actual Senator Trillanes decide to make a break for it. Not that Trillanes would attempt to flee. A former military officer, he has said that he will face whatever comes his way regarding his opposition to Duterte, and his attempted 2003 and 2007 coups (the so-called Oakwood Mutiny and Manila Peninsula Siege, respectively) against then President Gloria Arroyo.

The amnesty—granted by Arroyo’s successor, President Benigno Aquino III—is now at the center of a volatile stalemate between Duterte and Trillanes, who has been holed up in the Senate for more than two weeks. The deadlock began when, via a proclamation nestled in the Sept. 4 Manila Times, Duterte announced he was revoking Trillanes’ amnesty “effective immediately” and instructed the military and police to “employ all lawful means to apprehend him.” The proclamation claimed the reprieve extended to Trillanes for his roles in the attempted coups was void because he did not meet its minimum requirements, which include an admission of guilt.

“What Mr. Duterte wants to happen is to order a warrantless arrest which seems to declare de facto martial law,” Trillanes said at the time.

Although some 40 police and soldiers showed up at the Senate, the army declined to arrest Trillanes without a warrant and fellow lawmakers slammed the proclamation as “cowardly” political persecution. More than a fortnight later, Trillanes remains under the protection of the Senate Sargant-at-Arms. Duterte has since said the case will be resolved through the courts. Citing back-channel military sources, Trillanes claims there’s still a standing order out for his arrest.

The potential junking of Trillanes’ amnesty is “of sufficient importance that it will affect future generations of Filipinos,” his legal counsel Reynaldo Robles tells TIME. In a country whose history is peppered with putsches and “People Power” revolutions, amnesty has long been a salve—at least one other senator and the current army chief of staff have one—and a tool to convince communist rebels and armed secessionists to “come down from the hills.” The move to revoke Trillanes’ could jeopardize current and future peace talks, says Robles.

For now, the standoff is being cast as a test of the Philippines judicial independence. Should another prominent Duterte critic end up in jail, it will become “increasingly difficult for the government to argue that what’s going on isn’t a crackdown on the opposition,” author and analyst Richard Heydarian tells TIME. The attempt to silence Trillanes could backfire, he adds “transforming him into a hero, not only for the political opposition but a larger section of the society.” With his senatorial term ending in 2019, Trillanes’ predicament might end up being to his advantage.

“If he plays this well, then he might have political relevance still by being someone who is persecuted in a symbol of further democratic erosion,” Aries Arugay, an associate professor of political science at the University of the Philippines in Diliman recently told the Southeast Asia Globe.

The senator’s bleary-eyed holdout comes at a trying time for Duterte. Amid pressure over high inflation and the rising cost of basic goods, planned church-led protests against the “rise of another dictator”, and the prospect of an International Criminal Court (ICC) investigation into his bloody drug war, an embattled Duterte has doubled down on his enmity with Trillanes. In a televised interview Sept. 11, he claimed a group of former military personnel were in cahoots with the Communist Party to oust him, alleged that he was the subject of an assassination plot, and dared the army to stage a coup d’état should it side with the senator.


Members of civilian "Magdalo" group, an organization set up by military young officers including Senator Antonio Trillianes, hold a rally in support outside the senate building in Manila on September 10, 2018.Ted Aljibe—AFP/Getty Images

‘I could be here for the long haul’

As his decoy navigated a traffic snarl on Manila’s Taft Avenue, Trillanes was holed up in his office after a press conference with local media, who have been camped outside his door since Duterte’s proclamation. Besides bloodshot eyes, there was little to indicate he had spent the past nine nights sleeping on his couch. He was clean shaven, stiff shouldered, and un-disheveled; his office smelled only of microwaved rice.

That morning, a Makati court had declined to immediately issue an arrest warrant over Trillanes’ role in the 2003 mutiny and given his defense team ten days to comment on the case. A similar hearing the following day, on the 2007 uprising, would also kick the case down the road.

“I have psyched myself up that I could be here for the long haul” he tells TIME.

Trillanes believes the timing of the proclamation was deliberate. When it was issued, he was part way through a probe into why government contracts were reportedly awarded to a company part-owned by Duterte’s Solicitor General, Jose Calida. The Solicitor General, though, is just one of a series of administration officials Trillanes has targeted. In 2016 he filed a complaint over Duterte’s alleged ownership of undeclared bank accounts. He also provided security to retired senior police officer Arturo Lascanas, a self-confessed hitman who said he’d killed on Duterte’s orders when he was mayor of Davao City. Last year, amid a probe to determine how a 6.4-billion-peso ($125 million) shipment of methamphetamine slipped through the Bureau of Customs, Trillanes accused the president’s son Paolo of belonging to a Chinese crime syndicate and profiting from the drug trade. And in an interview with TIME, he called the drug war a “sham” intended to “deflect suspicion” from the Duterte family’s involvement in narcotics.

Read more: The Mutineer: How Antonio Trillanes Came to Lead the Fight Against Rodrigo Duterte

Such theories have long swirled in the Philippines but “until now, Trillanes has not presented any compelling evidence and therefore there is no solid foundation” professor Arugay says. Some grass roots activists say such sensational allegations might damage the credibility of evidence of police abuses collected painstakingly from drug war victims’ relatives.

Trillanes detractors have denounced him as an “attack dog” who is “totally dedicated to havoc,” and many opposed to the Duterte’s autocratic tendencies have trouble accepting him as a champion. His right-leaning nationalist party, the Magdalos, is comprised mostly of former military personnel and much of his voting record has been focused on improving the lots of soldiers.

Still, the senator has resolutely challenged the brutal drug war Duterte says will continue to be as “relentless and chilling” as the day it began. Human rights groups say at least 12,000 have been killed, Trillanes puts the death toll at nearly 30,000—encompassing more than 4,500 drug suspects police claim to have killed in self-defense, and more than 23,000 homicides classified as “deaths under investigation.” Research by human rights groups and journalists has tied police, or mercenaries acting at the behest of the police, to at least some of these deaths. Last year, two senior police officers told Reuters that police planted evidence at crime scenes, carried out most of the killings blamed on vigilantes and received financial rewards for street executions.

As long as he has a political platform, Trillanes has ruled out the type of military adventurism with which he protested the Arroyo administration. He dismisses Duterte’s talk of assassination as the “rantings of a desperate man” and rubbishes suggestions of a co-plot with the communists.

“Our democratic institutions are technically still standing, so this test is going to be a representation of the strength of our democracy,” he tells TIME. Should Duterte undermine democracy by declaring martial law or a revolutionary government, however, “the gloves are off.”

Senator Leila De Lima waves to her supporters after appearing at a court in Muntinlupa City, suburban Manila on February 24, 2017.Noel Celis—AFP/Getty Images

‘Jailing us as common criminals’

If detained, Trillanes would become the second major opposition lawmaker jailed since Duterte took office. Police 18 months ago arrested Duterte’s longtime critic Sen. Leila De Lima on drug-related charges soon after she opened an investigation into the president’s alleged use of death squads to kill drug suspects. She remains in jail at the police headquarters Camp Crame and denies the allegations against her.

Solicitor General Calida has meanwhile threatened to impeach Vice President Leni Robredo and has accused her of treason after she criticized Duterte’s drug war. This May, another prominent critic, former Supreme Court Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, was ousted on charges of failing to disclose wealth—”I am now your enemy and you have to be out of the Supreme Court,” Duterte had said the month prior. The president has also fired the head of the Dangerous Drug Board for contradicting him on the extent of drug addiction in the Philippines and threatened to arrest the Ombudsman before she terminated a probe into his family’s finances.

“It’s all part of Duterte’s repressive and dictatorial style. He has been used to having his way in Davao, where anyone who opposes him is silenced either by intimidation or assassination,” De Lima writes TIME from her cell in Camp Crame. “As president, he cannot outrightly murder political opponents without creating a national crisis,” she adds, so instead he resorts to “jailing us as common criminals.”

Duterte has even attempted to link the family of Vice President Leni Robredo to the drug trade in her hometown of Naga City. Vice Presidents are elected separately in the Philippines and Robredo—who maintains she won the poll fairly—is facing fraud allegations bought by runner-up candidate Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. (Duterte gave the latter’s father Ferdinand Marcos— the late Philippine dictator—a hero’s burial and has said he might step down should Bongbong successfully overturn Robredo’s election victory.)

‘People might get hurt’

Sept. 13’s late afternoon run to the airport proved inconclusive. Trillanes’ Land Cruiser was neither tailed nor detained. But images and video released from an earlier dry run purport to show men on motorcycles tailing his car. The senator’s office also released CCTV footage on Sept. 18 showing a “suspicious” vehicle circling his family home. The Presidential Communications Office did not immediately return TIME’s request for comment on Trillanes’ surveillance allegations.

Until the Armed Forces chief of staff issues a categorical directive to the military, Trillanes is staying put. It’s not that he is afraid of being incarcerated, he says, but that “people might get hurt” if there is miscommunication, particularly if those attempting to detain him are ununiformed mercenaries.In addition to the revocation of his amnesty, Trillanes faces a litany of suits over accusations he’s slung at Duterte and his allies. Paolo Duterte—who abruptly resigned as Davao’s Vice Mayor last December—recently added an additional libel suit to that list.

For now, Trillanes is content to fight his legal battles from his office, sleeping on his couch and eating takeout. At a time when ordinary Filipinos “are being raided inside their homes without warrants” and “killed like animals” he says, the relative safety of the Senate is a privilege his countrymen do not enjoy.

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Write to Joseph Hincks / Manila at joseph.hincks@time.com