Philippine ex-senator and critic of Duterte is freed on bail

Jason Gutierrez and Gerard Carreon
Philippine ex-senator and critic of Duterte is freed on bail Leila de Lima, a former Philippine senator, waves to the crowd outside the Muntinlupa Regional Trial Court in Manila after walking out of police custody on bail, Nov. 13, 2023.
Jose Monsieur Santos/BenarNews

UPDATED at 11:38 ET on 2023-11-13

Former Philippine Sen. Leila de Lima, a fierce critic of ex-President Rodrigo Duterte, walked free from jail on Monday when a local court ordered her released on bail after six years in custody.

De Lima had been incarcerated since 2017 on charges that 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.

“It is a legal vindication,” she said at a press conference held soon after her release. “The case is still pending. This is bail. This is provisional liberty, and this is definitely a great gift from the almighty God.”

The Duterte administration (2016-2022) filed three charges against de Lima, a former Philippine human rights commissioner, 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 out of the three charges, including one as recently as in May.

On Monday, de Lima moved a step closer to complete freedom after the Muntinlupa Regional Trial Court granted her bail in the remaining case. In it, she stands accused of allegedly tolerating the “widespread drug trade” inside the country’s main maximum security prison when she was justice secretary.

“I don’t want to be sad or bitter today,” she said as she left the court surrounded by a crush of police officers and journalists. “This is the moment of triumphant joy and also of thanksgiving.”

She later told BenarNews it was “an unbelievable feeling” to be free again.

“I did not deserve to be in jail, and I don’t want others to experience this,” she said.

Former Sen. Leila de Lima speaks at a press conference in Quezon City, Metro Manila, soon after her release from the Philippine National Police Custodial Center, Nov. 13, 2023. [Gerard Carreon/BenarNews]

Human rights groups hailed her release and said the remaining drug-related case should be dropped immediately.

“She never should have been unjustly prosecuted and detained by former President Rodrigo Duterte, whose administration concocted evidence and used the machinery of an abusive state to punish her for performing her duties as a senator and speaking out against the ‘war on drugs,’” said Bryony Lau, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.

While decrying the politically motivated charges, she said that de Lima’s incarceration had “inspired a generation of human rights defenders in the Philippines and beyond.”

Butch Alano, director of Amnesty International’s Philippines section, said the decision to grant bail was a step toward justice for the “prisoner of conscience.”

“Leila has been targeted by the government for her criticism of the murderous ‘war on drugs’ and other human rights violations. She should have never spent even a single day in detention,” he said.

“This last remaining drug case against her must be dismissed expeditiously, and those behind her arbitrary detention and other violations of her human rights must be brought to justice.”

Alano also called on the government of Ferdinand Marcos Jr. to ensure the safety of de Lima, who has been subject to verbal and physical attacks while in detention.

In October last year, de Lima was held hostage by an inmate during a breakout attempt by three detainees with links to terrorist groups who were subsequently shot dead by police.

Pressure on Marcos

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

She began investigating the cases 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.

Supporters of Leila de Lima’s stand outside the Muntinlupa Regional Trial Court in Manila, Nov. 13, 2023. [Jose Monsieur Santos/BenarNews]

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. His congressional allies followed suit and launched investigations.

The court decision will heap pressure on Marcos Jr. to end what’s widely seen as political persecution of de Lima. He has resisted calls for him to use his executive powers to release her, saying he did not want to interfere with the court handling the case.

However, Marcos Jr. has sought to protect Duterte from international scrutiny after forming a political alliance with him to win the presidency. Duterte’s daughter Sara is the vice-president.

Last year, Marcos said investigators from the International Criminal Court, who are investigating the so-called war on drugs during Duterte’s tenure, would not be allowed to enter the country.

This report has been updated to add comments from Leila de Lima at a press conference.


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