Philippines: Duterte critic Leila de Lima held hostage in jail violence

Aie Balagtas See
Philippines: Duterte critic Leila de Lima held hostage in jail violence Jailed Philippine ex-senator Leila de Lima (left) talking to Senator Risa Hontiveros (right) after the former was briefly taken hostage by an inmate inside the national police headquarters in Camp Crame, Quezon City in Metro Manila, Oct. 9, 2022.
Handout from Office of Senator Risa Hontiveros, via AFP

Detained ex-senator Leila de Lima, a leading critic of former president Rodrigo Duterte and his war on drugs, was briefly held hostage on Sunday by an inmate during an attempted breakout by three detainees who were shot dead by police, authorities said.

The incident, which took place in the custodial center inside the Philippine National Police’s Camp Crame headquarters in Quezon City, was a “near-death experience,” de Lima said in a statement after surviving the ordeal.

“I am grateful to all who expressed concern for my well-being in the aftermath of the surreal hostage-taking incident that happened this Sunday morning,” she said. “I am now safe and sound except for the lingering pain on my chest where the hostage-taker pressed the point of his knife while holding me hostage.”

Police said three detainees, facing criminal charges for their alleged links with terrorist groups Abu Sayyaf and Dawlah Islamiyah, attacked an officer with a crude knife while queueing for food. The suspects were identified as Arnel Cabintoy, Idang Susukan, and Feliciano Sulayao.

“Based on an initial report, in their attempt to escape, they stabbed one police officer. Another police on duty was able to respond and fired towards the PUPs [persons under police custody], hitting Cabintoy and Susukan,” national police spokesman Brig. Gen. Roderick Augustus Alba told reporters.

The third detainee, Sulayao, “ran towards the cell of de Lima and held her as a hostage,” Alba said, adding that attempts to negotiate with the inmate failed.

Since the situation escalated, members of the elite Special Action Force engaged Sulayao, and he was “neutralized,” Alba said, adding the stabbed police officer is in the hospital for treatment.

De Lima said if it were not for the “timely intervention” of the Philippine security force, she probably would not have survived.

“After being told by the hostage-taker that since his two other companions were already dead, he might just as well also kill me, I consider what happened to me as a near-death experience,” she said in a statement sent to media.

“I have already endured more than five years of unjust detention inside the PNP Custodial Center… Being so near death has only made me value life even more.”

Philippine police escort Leila de Lima, a senator detained on drug charges, on her way to a local court in Quezon city, metro Manila, Mar. 13, 2017. [Romeo Ranoco/Reuters]

Rights group asks to release de Lima

The hostage situation prompted calls for the immediate release of de Lima and the swift dismissal of the drug-related charges filed against the former lawmaker.

New York-based Human Rights Watch said it was “horrified” by the hostage drama and renewed its call to release the former senator.

“This only underscores the compelling need to release her from police detention. She should never have been there to begin with. The Philippine government has held her hostage for the past five years for her human rights advocacy,” HRW said in a statement.

“The international community, which is now keen on working with the Marcos administration in spite of the many human rights issues it faces, should exert pressure on President Marcos to end de Lima’s suffering and return her back to her family and friends.”

De Lima was jailed in 2017 on charges that she profited from drug dealing when she was the justice secretary, and Duterte’s government took her to jail to be tried. But at least three of the government’s witnesses have backtracked and said they had been coerced into testifying against the former senator.

According to official government numbers, about 8,000 suspected addicts and dealers died during the Duterte administration’s drug war, but human rights groups have said the figure could be three times higher.

Rights groups have all dismissed de Lima’s case as trumped up, while she has denied all the charges. The courts have so far dismissed one of three drug-related charges against her.

After Sunday’s incident, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. said in a statement that he would talk to de Lima to check on her condition and offer the former senator an opportunity to be transferred to another detention canter.

The Commission on Human Rights dispatched a quick response operation team to investigate the hostage crisis to find out “the truth and possible accountabilities.”

It said it was “gravely concerned” about the welfare of de Lima because the incident “puts into serious question” the safety of the political opposition leader and other detainees.

In August, the Philippines allowed a high-level U.S. congressional delegation led by Sen. Ed Markey to check in on de Lima.

“For too long, Senator Leila de Lima has been held on politically motivated charges. Despite this, her spirit remains undiminished. I call on the new government to release her and drop all charges without delay,” Markey said in a statement after the visit to the Philippines.


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