International human rights groups called on the Philippine government Thursday to release a senator, a top critic of President Rodrigo Duterte who has spent three years in prison, and to drop charges against her that they described as politically motivated.
The joint call by the Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and FORUM-ASIA came a few days before the third anniversary of Sen. Leila de Lima’s imprisonment on drug charges that she claimed were made up.
“Every day that Sen. de Lima remains detained is another day of injustice, not only against her but also against all Filipinos whose rights – to life, liberty, health and due process – have been trampled on by a violent and repressive government,” Amnesty regional director Nicholas Bequelin said in a statement issued by the three groups.
The senator angered the president when, as chairwoman of the Commission on Human Rights, she investigated reports of extrajudicial killings by a death squad that Duterte had allegedly set up in Davao City, where he served as mayor before being elected president.
De Lima later became justice secretary and, in 2016, was elected senator during the same election that saw Duterte win the presidency by landslide on a populist platform to end drug trafficking and corruption.
Duterte wasted no time in going after de Lima, publicly excoriating her as she moved to mount a Senate inquiry into the killings linked to the drug war. Two of those who testified – a self-described member of hit squad and a police officer – would later file a case against Duterte before the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague.
“The mistreatment of de Lima reflects broader attacks by the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte against human rights defenders, particularly women,” the joint statement said while decrying the slow pace of her case.
Mukunda Kattel, executive director of FORUM-ASIA, said women human rights defenders had repeatedly faced “state-sanctioned intimidation and reprisals” under Duterte. FORUM-ASIA represents 81 rights organizations in 21 Asian nations.
“We have also observed the intensification of gender-based attacks, such as sexual harassment and the use of dehumanizing and misogynist language to silence women human rights defenders who continue to push for greater accountability,” he said in the statement.
The drug war campaign has not slowed as about 6,000 suspected traffickers and dealers have been killed, according to government figures, in what police describe as legitimate shootouts. Rights groups claim the death toll could be 20,000 to 30,000.
While de Lima remains behind bars, Duterte has rejected allegations that she was not being granted due process.
The president also withdrew the Philippines’ from a treaty that established the ICC.
In addition, Duterte barred officials from traveling to the United States after Washington revoked the visa of Sen. Ronald dela Rosa, who as national police chief launched the drug war. More recently, Duterte ended the long-running Visiting Forces Agreement with the U.S., which allowed for large-scale joint military exercises and training.
Those moves have not affected international investigations into rights violations. The United Nations Human Rights Council has ordered High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet to report on the country’s human rights situation in June.
The council must “hold the Philippines government accountable for its abuses against the senator and other human rights defenders in the country,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch.