Philippine Court Acquits Jailed Duterte Foe on a Drug Charge

Marielle Lucenio
Philippine Court Acquits Jailed Duterte Foe on a Drug Charge Sen. Leila de Lima, a jailed opposition lawmaker in the Philippines, waves to reporters after voting at a polling precinct in suburban Manila, May 13, 2019.

A Philippine court acquitted Sen. Leila de Lima on Wednesday of one of three drug charges but ruled that the opposition politician – a top critic of President Rodrigo Duterte during her nearly four years in prison – must remain incarcerated.

The government has alleged that de Lima, who was sent to prison in February 2017, received protection money from jailed drug dealers while she served as justice minister before being elected to the senate. 

“I welcome the court’s clearing me of Criminal Case No. 17-166,” the senator said in a statement from prison as she celebrated the decision by the Muntinlupa Regional Trial Court, Branch 205. 

“To be acquitted even in just one case, in the time of Duterte, is a victory.” 

De Lima expressed hope that she would also be acquitted on the other two drug-dealing charges. The senator has emerged as one of President Duterte’s toughest political foes. Local and international human rights groups have followed her case closely and called for her to be freed from prison.   

“Apparently, the prosecution failed to elicit strong evidence to sustain a finding of guilt beyond reasonable doubt on the part of accused de Lima,” read the 41-page order by Judge Liezel Aquiatan.

The testimonies presented by the state “were insufficient to prove the culmination of the agreed drug trading in this particular case or to show de Lima’s personal knowledge” of alleged drug payments, the judge said.

“The demurrer to evidence filed by accused Leila de Lima is hereby granted,” the judge wrote of the senator’s petition to dismiss the charge, while ruling against allowing bail for her.

Rolly Peoro, the senator’s attorney, said they hoped an acquittal in one of the two other cases would boost her efforts to be freed.

“We are confident in our motion for bail that, again, the five witnesses presented so far by the prosecution already established the innocence of Sen. Leila de Lima,” Peoro said.

De Lima said that the government’s case against her of “conspiracy to engage in illegal drug trading” was baseless.

“In fact, the prosecution witnesses, including those who they claim is a drug lord has denied that he himself was a drug lord,” de Lima said. “Moreover, they also testified that they have no connection to me or have no personal knowledge of the crime being accused of me.” 

De Lima angered Duterte when, as chairwoman of the Commission on Human Rights, she investigated reports of extrajudicial killings by a death squad allegedly set up by Duterte in Davao City, where he served as mayor before being elected president in 2016.

She later became justice secretary and, in 2016, was elected senator during the same election that saw Duterte win the presidency by a landslide after he ran on a platform of eliminating drug trafficking and corruption. 

Shortly after the election, Duterte publicly excoriated de Lima her as she moved to mount a Senate inquiry into killings linked to his administration’s drug war.

Last February, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and FORUM-ASIA, which represents 81 rights organizations in 21 Asian nations, issued a joint call for the charges against de Lima to be dropped because, the groups said, they were politically motivated.

“Every day that Sen. de Lima remains detained is another day of injustice, not only against her but also against all Filipinos whose rights – to life, liberty, health and due process – have been trampled on by a violent and repressive government,” Amnesty regional director Nicholas Bequelin said as part of the joint statement.

Duterte and his spokesmen declined to comment on Wednesday’s ruling.

Jeoffrey Maitem and Mark Navales in Cotabato, Philippines, contributed to this report.


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