Southeast Asian lawmakers were barred Tuesday from visiting jailed Philippine Senator Leila de Lima, cementing their belief that she has been “unjustifiably detained” for speaking out against President Rodrigo Duterte.
The ASEAN Parliamentarian for Human Rights (APHR), composed of lawmakers from around the region who promote rights, said it had complied with a 10-day visiting notice demanded by the national police.
“Seeking an appointment with a fellow legislator who has now been incarcerated and is in detention is something that we want to do,” said Charles Santiago, a legislator from Malaysia and member of the group.
“And not allowing us to visit her actually further affirms our beliefs that she is unjustifiably detained, otherwise the government doesn’t have to worry about this,” he said.
De Lima, a former human rights commissioner and the most vocal critic of the Duterte administration’s crackdown on drugs that has left thousands dead, including children, has been jailed since February.
She is accused of receiving payoffs from drug traffickers in custody when she was the justice secretary, a charge she says was fabricated and meant to silence her.
Many here suspect that her arrest and ongoing detention was a political vendetta, even as Duterte has publicly denied any hand in it.
Her arrest, however, has not stopped de Lima from issuing stinging statements against the president, whom she has accused of moving to silence the political opposition amid his alleged strongman tendencies.
Another parliamentarian, Tian Chia, said the APHR was “very disappointed” at the denial of visitation rights. Chia said the parliamentarians were made to wait outside the heavily guarded detention center in Manila where de Lima is being held in a tiny cell.
The group said it had submitted a request to visit de Lima as early as Sept. 6, complying with a 10-day advanced notice for visitors.
“We believe that if the authorities have nothing to hide, and if the authorities are doing things according to the principle of transparency, then we should not be denied from interacting and paying our visit to show our regards to her,” Chua said.
The legislators believe that de Lima is innocent and her jailing is “part of the intimidation campaign against her, which violates her rights as a legislator,” Chia said.
“We find her detention unjustifiable given she’s a representative doing her work. She is now in jail and for standing up against President Duterte, so therefore, we are here to express our solidarity with her,” Chua said.
‘Blood-thirsty gangsters parading as public officials’
The incident marked the second time that a visitor was barred since Juli Minoves of the Liberal International group was refused access to de Lima in July.
In her message to the APHR delegates delivered by an aide, de Lima said Duterte was moving to instill fear among his perceived political opponents who questioned his brutal crackdown.
“Fear that is slowly, but surely, co-opting or neutralizing our independent institutions. Fear that is converting our democratic government into an oppressive, authoritarian rule, backed by a mob of greedy and blood-thirsty gangsters parading as public officials and police officers,” de Lima said.
She noted that in the Duterte-controlled congress, those who opposed the president and his policies had been attacked and threatened with expulsion.
The country’s Supreme Court Chief Justice, Lourdes Sereno, meanwhile, has been the subject of an impeachment complaint in congress, while the Commission on Human Rights – which has been investigating questionable killings – has also been threatened by a congressional budget cut that would render it, in effect, inoperative.
De Lima, a grandmother and lawyer, has been branded a “prisoner of conscience” by rights groups.
The former chairwoman of the Commission on Human Rights led an investigation into accusations of extrajudicial killings when Duterte was mayor of the southern city of Davao in 2008.
Duterte has never forgiven her for that, and in public speeches has said that de Lima used those accusations to smear him. Last year, he won the presidency, the same time that de Lima became a senator.
As head of the justice committee in the Senate, de Lima’s first act was to launch a probe into the killings, and she heard testimony from a self-confessed former hit man who claimed to have been employed by Duterte.
She was later pressured by peers who were allied with Duterte to step down as head of the committee. Subsequently, the president accused her publically of receiving drug money to fund her campaign.
Formal charges were later filed against her, and despite appeals she has filed in court, she remains in jail. She has repeatedly said that she feared for her life while in detention.