US lawmakers can’t talk to former Philippine senator jailed on drug charges

Camille Elemia and Jojo Riñoza
US lawmakers can’t talk to former Philippine senator jailed on drug charges Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. (left) greets U.S. Sen. Edward Markey, who led a delegation of American lawmakers during a visit to the Malacañang Palace in Manila, Aug. 18, 2022.
Handout photo/Office of the Press Secretary

A U.S. congressional delegation led by Sen. Ed Markey will not be allowed to interact with jailed former Philippine Sen. Leila de Lima if they plan to visit her while in Manila, the national police said Thursday.

Markey and his delegation arrived in the Philippine capital on Thursday, as part of a tour of Asian nations.

The Massachusetts Democrat chairs the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations East Asia and Pacific Subcommittee, and has called for the release of de Lima, who has been jailed since 2017 on drug charges. At the time of her incarceration, the Philippine senator was a leading critic of then-President Rodrigo Duterte’s deadly crackdown on illegal drugs.

While the national police would “extend utmost courtesy and assistance to a foreign delegation from the U.S. Senate that will check on the conditions” at the police custodial center, the trip should be “consistent with existing guidelines in procedures on visitorial privileges in the detention facility,” said Brig. Gen. Roderick Augustus Alba, a spokesman for Philippine National Police.

“However, such accommodation excludes direct interaction with any person under police custody confined in the detention facility,” he said in a statement.

Still, police were prepared to brief the delegation about de Lima’s case.

Ferdinand Marcos Jr., the new Philippine president who succeeded Duterte in late June, hosted the U.S. delegation members on Thursday after they arrived in the country. The delegation is to meet with Philippine officials on Friday before leaving the country.

“We look forward to continuing our partnership with the U.S. in the areas of renewable energy use, agricultural development, economic reform and mitigation of the drug problem,” Marcos said in a post on Facebook.

In February, Markey said the Philippine senator’s jailing was based on “politically motivated charges” orchestrated by Duterte.

Human rights groups have been lobbying for the release of de Lima and have called on the U.S. lawmakers to check on her welfare in jail. Markey is leading a bipartisan delegation of legislators on this Asian trip, which included previous stops in South Korea, Taiwan and Cambodia.

Alba stressed that a person-to-person interaction would be “subject to express permission” from the courts. He also noted it would be subject to safety considerations because the facility where de Lima is detained is inside the police headquarters in Manila where there has been a recent outbreak of COVID-19 cases.

Police spokeswoman Col. Jean Fajardo said the U.S. delegation had asked to visit other detention facilities in the country as well. She said the American lawmakers were specifically told that they would violate security and judicial protocols if they spoke with any detainee.

“We have to remember, these are delegates from a foreign country and there are certain diplomatic processes and procedures for this purpose,” she told reporters.

Charges against de Lima

Duterte’s government accused de Lima of profiting from illegal drugs when she served as justice secretary and presented jailed drug lords who testified that they had given drug proceeds to her – allegations she vehemently denied. The witnesses have since recanted their statements, saying they were coerced into implicating her.

Elected to the Senate in 2016, de Lima unsuccessfully ran for re-election from jail last May. In a written statement on Tuesday, de Lima said because she remains in custody despite witnesses recanting proves that the justice system had deteriorated under Duterte.

Catholic priest and human rights defender Flavie Villanueva campaigns for jailed opposition Sen. Leila de Lima, who would later lose her reelection bid, April 23, 2022. [Jason Gutierrez/BenarNews]

“My continued detention on the basis of evidently and utterly false cases is yet another reminder to the world that the justice system in our country is broken,” de Lima said.   

“I was detained, and persecuted, because I dared to speak for those who were oppressed against a populist tyrant,” she said. “I wait for the day when justice returns in our country.”

Duterte was succeeded by Marcos, the son and namesake of the country’s former dictator. Marcos’ vice president is Duterte’s daughter, Sara Duterte-Carpio, making it difficult for any rights groups to take legal action against the former president, analysts have said. 

The Office of the Ombudsman recently issued a resolution ordering the dismissal of direct and indirect bribery complaints against de Lima and her co-accused, Ronnie Dayan who is a former bodyguard. It said testimonies against them were inconsistent and contradictory.

In response, the Department of Justice said the Ombudsman’s resolution on July 22 did not affect drug charges against de Lima, the state-run Philippine News Agency reported.

In February 2021, a Philippine court found her not guilty of one of three drug charges, but ordered her to remain incarcerated.

Meanwhile, calls to release de Lima from custody have been growing.

The Commission on Human Rights – a constitutionally independent body – stressed that defendants should not face oppressive prosecution when evidence against them is not corroborated.

“It is through these preconditions – the conduct of due process and the respect for the rule of law – that we protect democracy and promote good governance,” it said in a statement, noting that de Lima has been detained for more than half a decade. 

“Any further delay to a fair trial directly violates the rights of persons deprived of liberty,” it said.

Cambodia visit

While in Cambodia, Markey’s delegation visited more than a dozen government officials and lawmakers on Tuesday, according to the senator’s office. The delegation called on Cambodian officials to protect human rights, political freedoms and free speech.

“The Government of Cambodia must live up to the promise of the 1991 Paris Peace Agreements and embrace the freedoms of expression, civil and political rights that were so hard fought. Cambodians overcame decades of war and chaos that cost the country millions of lives, and deserve to enjoy the democratic freedoms they were promised,” Markey said in a statement.

“The government must release political prisoners, end the crackdown against opposition parties and allow for freedom of expression and a free press. They should be skeptical of Chinese military ambitions in Cambodia and prevent any base for use by the PLA, which is prohibited by the Cambodian constitution,” he said, using an acronym for China’s People’s Liberation Army.


Add your comment by filling out the form below in plain text. Comments are approved by a moderator and can be edited in accordance with RFAs Terms of Use. Comments will not appear in real time. RFA is not responsible for the content of the postings. Please, be respectful of others' point of view and stick to the facts.