Senator was detained three years ago after she began a Senate probe into President Duterte’s deadly ‘drug war’.
A group of parliamentarians from Southeast Asia have urged Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte to immediately order the release of an opposition senator amid the coronavirus lockdown, as they joined rights groups in denouncing the decision to exclude the jailed legislator from the Senate’s ongoing online session.
Senator Leila de Lima has been in jail since her arrest in February 2017 on charges related to drug trafficking – allegations that she and her supporters believe are politically motivated and aimed at silencing one of the president’s most outspoken critics.
In a statement issued on Thursday, ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) said that de Lima and all political and human rights activists should be prioritised for release while the country struggles to contain the spread of the coronavirus
Charles Santiago, a member of the Malaysian parliament and APHR chairman, said all charges against de Lima should also be dropped without conditions.
“At a time when the priority is to urgently decrease the prison population to stem COVID-19 pandemic, what is Senator de Lima still doing behind bars?”
While trial proceedings have begun against de Lima, her cases have been delayed multiple times after at least six judges withdrew from hearing her case.
De Lima, an APHR member, remains one of the most vocal critics of Duterte’s anti-drug policy, during which thousands of people have been killed.
Before her arrest, de Lima was leading a Senate investigation into the president’s so-called “war on drugs”.
That prompted Duterte to vow to “destroy her in public”, and he ridiculed her private life during several speeches.
Previously, de Lima led the country’s human rights commission and investigated rights abuse allegations against Duterte while he was the mayor of the southern city of Davao in Mindanao.
“Senator de Lima has not been convicted of any offences, despite spending the last two years in prison. Her only crime has been to stand up for human rights,” Santiago, the Malaysia MP, said.
Since the emergency declaration due to the coronavirus pandemic was announced in the Philippines in mid-March, the country has been placed under varying lockdown conditions, with most government institutions shut.
Congress resumed its session on Monday, and members of the Senate and House of Representatives have agreed to hold parts of their deliberations online through teleconferencing.
While imprisoned, de Lima has not been able to attend Senate sessions, although she has been able to file bills, resolutions and committee reports through her staff.
Now that the sessions have shifted online, de Lima has said she should be allowed to participate, insisting that it would not violate the conditions of her incarceration.
But Senate President Sotto Vicente III, an ally of Duterte, has insisted de Lima will not be allowed to join the online hearings.
She called Sotto’s decision “foul and unfair”, and part of the government’s practice of “petty politics”.
“The ruling of the Supreme Court on this matter is clear. As long as I stay in the detention centre, there is nothing that prevents me from performing my job as a duly-elected Senator,” de Lima said.
A resolution filed by Senators Franklin Drilon and Panfilo Lacson in July 2019 to allow de Lima to attend plenary sessions by way of electronic means remains pending in the Senate.
On Wednesday, the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders also denounced de Lima’s exclusion.
“The decision to prevent Senator de Lima from exercising her mandate reflects a clear attempt to restrict her right to freedom of expression and to silence the voice of a lawmaker involved in the defence of human rights in the Philippines,” said Alice Mogwe, president of the organisation.
Malaysian MP Santiago also called the move “ridiculous”.
“Denying her the possibility to join Senate sessions online is yet another attempt at silencing her and preventing her from fully exercising her mandate as a directly-elected representative.”