Philippines relents to US lawmakers’ request to visit jailed Duterte critic

Camille Elemia and Jason Gutierrez
Philippines relents to US lawmakers’ request to visit jailed Duterte critic Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. (right) listens as U.S. Sen. Edward Markey talks during his courtesy call at the Malacañang presidential palace in Manila, Aug. 18, 2022. On Friday, Markey met a long-detained Filipino opposition leader, former Sen. Leila de Lima, whom he says has been wrongfully imprisoned under the previous government and should be freed.
Handout photo from Malacañang Presidential Photographers Division via AP

Updated at 5:47 p.m. ET on 2022-08-19

The Philippines allowed a high-level U.S. congressional delegation led by Sen. Ed Markey to check in on Leila de Lima, the former Philippine senator who has been in jail since 2017 after she spoke out against the previous administration’s violent war on drugs at the time.

When Markey and other members of the delegation arrived in Manila on Thursday, they tried to visit de Lima but the police told them they would not be allowed a face-to-face visit with the prisoner, pending approval from the government or courts.

Instead, Markey met that day with new President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and Justice Secretary Jesus Crispin Remulla, according to a U.S. State Department spokesperson.

Manila saw no reason to block the visit of Markey’s delegation, Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) spokeswoman Maria Teresa Daza said on Friday. 

“The delegation secured access by following the applicable judicial and administrative procedures,” Daza told BenarNews. “The executive branch, including DFA, interposed no objection and supported the request.”

In a short video clip of footage obtained by BenarNews from sources, Markey can be seen entering the detention facility inside the Philippine National Police custodial center, in northern Manila, on Friday. Senior staff from the U.S. embassy accompanied the eight-member delegation, which stayed for an hour.

However, it was not clear what transpired after the visitors entered the building, because visitors usually are required to check in telephones, cameras and other recording equipment at the gates.

Afterwards, Markey’s delegation did not meet with the press, and the American embassy did not issue a statement. 

Markey's office later released a statement about the end of the delegation's two-day visit to Manila, part of a tour of Asian countries that also included South Korea, Taiwan and Cambodia.  

“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.

As human rights groups saw it, allowing Markey to visit de Lima in jail was a good sign that the new Marcos administration would keep international commitments to human rights. Marcos is the son of Ferdinand E. Marcos, the late longtime dictator of the Philippines, whose administration was notorious for massive rights abuses during 14 years of martial law, from 1972 to 1986.

“I am pleased to lead the first U.S. Congressional delegation to meet with President Marcos, Jr. and look forward to the promise of a renewed partnership with the newly elected government," Markey said. "I expressed to President Marcos my hope that he will turn the page on the human rights abuses of the previous government.”

The delegation left the Philippines later on Friday, his office said.

Early in 2022, Markey said de Lima’s jailing was orchestrated by Marcos’ predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte, who launched a bloody crackdown on alleged drug dealers and users that has left some 8,000 dead. Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, chairs the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations East Asia and Pacific Subcommittee.

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 testify against the former senator.

De Lima has denied all the charges against her, and the courts have so far dismissed one of three drug-related charges against her. A bribery case, filed before the Office of the Ombudsman that is responsible for prosecuting erring government officials, was also thrown out due to inconsistencies in testimonies against her.

Carlos Conde, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch in the Philippines, welcomed the government’s move Friday, and said members of the U.S. delegation would be “convinced and outraged at the injustice” against the former senator.

“It is now their responsibility to pressure the Philippine government to drop the charges against her and set her free,” Conde told BenarNews. “The longer she stays in jail, the longer the government mocks the democratic ideals that the Americans hold so dear.”

Local rights group, Karapatan, meanwhile said the visit was a “welcome act of solidarity.”

It expressed hope, however, that Markey and his delegation could also look into the cases of more than 800 other “political prisoners” languishing in Philippine jails, a third of whom were jailed during the six years of the Duterte administration.

“Their visit should spur calls and actions towards the release of de Lim and all political prisoners,” Karapatan Secretary General Cristina Palabay told BenarNews.

Opposition Sen. Leila de Lima votes in the Philippine midterm elections in suburban Paranaque, southeast of Manila, after the jailed lawmaker secured a furlough so she could cast her ballot, May 13, 2019. [AP Photo/Bullit Marquez]

Meanwhile, Foreign Secretary Enrique Manalo, who also met with Markey on Friday, reaffirmed the Philippines’ cooperation on issues dealing with human rights.

Marcos, he said, had signaled that he would continue to pursue a progressive human rights agenda, and that this commitment was relayed to members of the diplomatic corps in a meeting held in Manila on Wednesday.

“In his State of the Nation Address, the president outlined a forward-looking and people-centered national program for inclusive growth and sustainable development,” Manalo said, referring to Marcos’ address to Congress last month.

“This national program builds on the Philippines’ deeply-rooted and progressive human rights agenda, sustained over decades by successive political administrations.”

Neither Marcos nor Manalo said whether the government has changed its position regarding the International Criminal Court (ICC), which has found probable cause to investigate Duterte and the police for the drug war. Duterte had pulled the Philippines out from an international treaty that created the ICC, saying that the world court was out to publicly discredit his regime.

Earlier this month, Marcos also shot down growing calls from rights groups for the Philippines to rejoin the body, saying the government can carry its own probe.


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