Philippine court clears arch Duterte critic de Lima in final narcotics case

“I can sleep more soundly at night,” former Sen. Leila de Lima said after a Metro Manila court ruled in her favor.
BenarNews staff
Philippine court clears arch Duterte critic de Lima in final narcotics case Leila de Lima, a former Philippine senator and human rights campaigner, acknowledges supporters after all remaining criminal charges against her were dropped, outside a court in Muntinlupa, suburban Manila, on June 24, 2024.
Jam Sta Rosa/AFP

A Philippine court on Monday cleared Leila de Lima, a former senator and critic of ex-President Rodrigo Duterte’s anti-narcotics campaign, in the third and final drug case filed against her by his administration, ending her years-long legal battle.

The decision was handed down by the Muntinlupa City Regional Trial Court (Branch 206), the same court that granted her bail last November and paved the way for her release after more than six years in jail. 

Outside the courtroom afterwards, De Lima told reporters she felt “free and vindicated.”

“I feel relieved and happy and I can sleep more soundly at night,” de Lima said.

The senator had been incarcerated on drug-related charges, which she described as a political vendetta by Duterte for her criticism of his administration’s war on drugs – a campaign that left some 8,000 people dead during his time in office (2016-22). Rights activists say the number could be much higher. 

In its ruling on Monday, the court agreed with the defense’s contention of insufficient evidence to warrant a conviction. Under the Rules on Criminal Procedure, the decision to dismiss the case was equivalent to an acquittal.

De Lima had criticized Duterte, who is under investigation by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for the thousands of officer-involved killings under his administration’s war on illegal drugs. 

“I’m just one of the victims. Thousands have died in the deadly drug war,” she said.

Duterte and his spokespeople did not immediately respond to BenarNews requests for comment.

Prosecutor Ramoncito Ocampo said they were studying whether a motion for reconsideration would be filed.

“It is still premature on our part, we have still yet to read the decision ... but it is still to be discussed,” Ocampo said.

Supporters celebrate after all remaining criminal charges against former Philippine senator and human rights campaigner Leila de Lima were dropped, outside a court in Muntinlupa, suburban Manila, on June 24, 2024. [Jam Sta Rosa/AFP] 

De Lima’s allies welcomed Monday’s decision, which overturned what they said was a clear case of vendetta by Duterte.

“Justice finally prevails for former Senator Leila de Lima,” said Edcel Lagman, an opposition ally at the House of Representatives. “Her innocence has been upheld. Her indomitable spirit has conquered the vileness of malicious prosecution.”

While the court’s decision was good news, Sen. Risa Hontiveros, who had staunchly stuck with de Lima during her years in jail, said relevant authorities should now go after her accusers. 

“False charges compromise not only the accused’s reputation but also the integrity of our legal system,” Hontiveros told reporters. “We call upon the authorities to pursue and hold accountable those who have perpetuated these unfounded allegations. Justice must be served, and those who have wronged her and our legal system must face the consequences of their actions.”

Carlos Conde, a senior researcher for the New York-based Human Rights Watch, called the decision a “sweet vindication” for de Lima and the many victims of injustice.

Duterte’s successor, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., should now move towards proving to the world that he is serious about defending human rights, Conde said.

“His administration should cooperate with the investigation by the ICC into alleged crimes against humanity against Rodrigo Duterte,” Conde said. “He should work to achieve meaningful progress in the investigation and prosecution of extrajudicial killings that happened under Duterte – killings that, unfortunately, are still happening under his watch.”

Then-Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte speaks during the annual State of the Nation address at the House of Representatives in Metro Manila, July 26, 2021. [Lisa Marie David/Pool/AFP]

Marcos, Duterte’s successor as president, has repeatedly said that the ICC has no jurisdiction over the Philippines. But in May, the justice department said it was preparing a briefer for Marcos in case the international court did issue an arrest warrant against Duterte.

The Duterte administration had filed three cases against de Lima, accusing her of receiving payoffs from drug traffickers when she served as justice secretary between 2010 and 2015. 

After key government witnesses recanted their earlier statements against her, courts tossed out two of the three charges, including one last May. She was then released on bail from jail in November last year.

De Lima drew Duterte’s ire for leading investigations into alleged extrajudicial killings committed by his so-called vigilante group, the Davao Death Squad, when he served as mayor of Davao City before he was elected president in 2016.

She began investigating the cases in the southern city in 2009 when she chaired the Commission on Human Rights.

After de Lima’s 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 probe.

In response, Duterte publicly ridiculed de Lima and in speeches accused her of being “immoral” for allegedly using her driver as a collector of payoffs from drug traffickers. 

Jason Gutierrez and Gerard Carreon reported from Manila and Jeoffrey Maitem from southern Davao City.


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Jun 24, 2024 09:58 PM

This is long overdue. Hopefully the ICC catches the criminal Duterte next. But that will depend on the political will of Marcos. I'm optimistic it will push through this or next year considering the fracture between the Marcos and Duterte factions right now.