Philippine judge clears Duterte foe de Lima in second drug-related case

Jason Gutierrez
Philippine judge clears Duterte foe de Lima in second drug-related case Detained former opposition Sen. Leila de Lima (center) reacts as she leaves the Muntinlupa trial court after a judge acquitted her in of the two outstanding drug-related cases against her, May 12, 2023.
Aaron Favila/AP

A Philippine judge on Friday acquitted former Sen. Leila de Lima of one of two remaining drug-related cases after a key witness admitted he was coerced into testifying against her. 

Judge Joseph Abraham Alcantara of the Muntinlupa Regional Trial Court Branch 204 issued his ruling more than six years after de Lima was jailed by the government of former President Rodrigo Duterte. De Lima, who remains detained on the remaining case, butted heads with Duterte over his drug war that killed thousands of suspected addicts and dealers.

“Glorious day,” de Lima beamed to reporters as police escorts led her out of the packed courtroom while dozens of supporters chanted “Free Leila Now.”

“I had no doubt from the very beginning that I will be acquitted in all the cases the Duterte regime has fabricated against me based on the merits and the strength of my innocence,” de Lima said in a statement.

A fierce critic of Duterte, de Lima was arrested and jailed in 2017 on charges that she received payoffs through the illegal drug trade. Since then, at least three witnesses presented by the Duterte administration backtracked on their testimony, saying they had been coerced into testifying against her.  

“That’s already two cases down and one more to go. I am of course happy that with this second acquittal in the three cases filed against me, my release from more than six years of persecution draws nearer. I am extremely grateful to all those who stood by and prayed for me all these years,” she said. 

De Lima, 63, could be freed from custody if the court allows her to post bail for her third case.  

Duterte left office last year following the election of Ferdinand Marcos Jr., who faces calls from democratic countries, including military ally the United States, to free de Lima on the grounds that charges were trumped up. 

In his ruling, Alcantara said he found no reason to convict de Lima and her former aide, Ronnie Dayan, who were both accused of conspiracy to commit illegal drug trading in the New Bilibid Prison. Authorities alleged she benefitted financially during her stint as justice secretary to support her senatorial bid in 2016.

De Lima has denied all the charges against her – the first of three charges against her was dismissed in February 2021. A bribery case filed before the Office of the Ombudsman, who is responsible for prosecuting public officials, was dismissed because of inconsistencies in testimony against her.  

De Lima caught Duterte’s ire for leading investigations into alleged extrajudicial killings committed by his so-called Davao Death Squad when he was mayor of the southern city prior to his election as president.  

She began investigating the issue in Davao City in 2009 when she chaired the Commission on Human Rights. After her election to the senate in 2016, she sounded the alarm on the spate of killings during the first few months of Duterte’s term as president and launched a Senate probe.  

Duterte unleashed tirades against her even in his official speeches. His congressional allies followed and launched investigations.  

“I thank those who believe in me and those who joined me in this battle. You did not abandon me,” de Lima said. 

A supporter stands with a life-sized image of former opposition Sen. Leila de Lima during a rally in Pasig City, Metro Manila, March 20, 2022. [Jojo Riñoza/BenarNews]

Allies welcome acquittal

Former opposition Sen. Francis Pangilinan, de Lima’s close ally, welcomed the court’s decision. 

“Even as it has come more than six years after her imprisonment on fabricated and baseless accusations, we nevertheless welcome the Court’s verdict,” Pangilinan said in a statement.

“Since the first day of her detention we have been saying that the charges were trumped up and not supported by evidence. All the evidence is fabricated,” he said. 

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of the New York-based Human Rights Watch, said the cases against de Lima were politically motivated and that the remaining case should be thrown out as well. The court, he said, “should grant bail to de Lima, who has been in police detention for more than six years. 

“The cases against de Lima are part of former president Duterte’s vindictive campaign to destroy her for daring to investigate the human rights abuses her committed while mayor of Davao City, and later, as president of the Philippines,” he said. “Key witnesses have recanted their testimony, admitting they were coerced to provide false testimony against her.”

Rights organization Amnesty International said Friday’s decision was “long overdue” and urged authorities to “also quash the remaining drug case and to ensure that her application for temporary freedom in this pending case is processed speedily and fairly.”

“The authorities must not delay her release any longer and allow her to be reunited with her family, friends and supporters after six long years,” said Montse Ferrer, Amnesty’s regional director for research.

Duterte faces an International Criminal Court investigation into crimes against humanity linked to drug war deaths.

The former president withdrew the Philippines from an international treaty that created the ICC in an effort to escape prosecution. Still, the ICC said it would prosecute Duterte for alleged crimes that occurred before the treaty was terminated. 

Jeoffrey Maitem in Davao city, Philippines, contributed to this report.


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