Leila de Lima release urged after witnesses retract testimony

Philippine senator and vocal Duterte critic has been imprisoned for five years over drugs charges she denies.

Detained opposition Senator Leila de Lima (walking left) waves to supporters as she is escorted from detention to vote in 2019)
There are renewed calls for Senator Leila de Lima, a longtime critic of President Rodrigo Duterte, to be freed after two key witnesses withdrew their testimony against her [File: Ted Aljibe/AFP]

Rights groups are calling on the Philippines to release jailed senator Leila de Lima after two key witnesses in the government’s case against her retracted their testimony.

De Lima, a vocal critic of President Rodrigo Duterte and his controversial “war on drugs”, has been in custody since February 2017, accused of taking drug money while she was justice secretary.

De Lima, now 62, has repeatedly denied the charges, saying she is a victim of retaliation.

“Senator Leila de Lima has suffered five years in detention for an alleged crime that key witnesses now dispute,” Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch said in a statement. “The authorities should immediately drop the politically motivated charges and release her, and impartially investigate the witnesses’ claims that they were coerced to give false testimony.”

Rafael Ragos, who was an officer-in-charge of the Bureau of Corrections in 2012, now says earlier court testimony that he delivered money from drug lords to de Lima was “false” and coerced “upon the instructions of Secretary Aguirre,” referring to Duterte’s justice secretary, Vitaliano Aguirre.

Ragos said the testimony meant he was dropped as a respondent in the same case, and became a witness instead. In a tearful interview broadcast with the ANC news channel, he apologised to de Lima and said he was sorry.

A few days before Ragos’s revelation, another witness also withdrew his testimony against the senator.

In an affidavit, Kerwin Espinosa said the statement he made before the upper house in November 2016 which implicated de Lima in illegal drugs was “false” and the result of “pressure, coercion, intimidation, and serious threats to his life and family members from the police who instructed him to implicate the Senator into the illegal drug trade”.

Tweeting from custody, de Lima said the case was the “Greatest frame-up. Grandest conspiracy of lies. Grossest injustice.”

Civil society groups say at least 20,000 people have died in the “drug war”, mostly poor young men accused of being drug offenders and killed in a mix of police operations and vigilante killings.

The controversial crackdown is Duterte’s signature policy and was launched soon after he took power in 2016, and is now being investigated by the International Criminal Court. Official figures show more than 6,200 people have been killed.

De Lima began a Senate investigation into the killings in 2016, but was then removed from her position as the chair of the human rights and justice committee and targeted in sexist attacks that one opposition senator described as a “state-sponsored assault on women”.

The following year she was charged with three drug offences and jailed at the national police headquarters in Manila. In an interview with Al Jazeera in 2020, de Lima said the charges were “bulls**t“.

De Lima had already fuelled Duterte’s anger by investigating extrajudicial killings in Davao City, where Duterte was mayor before he was elected president.

She is campaigning for another term as a senator in elections on May 9.

Source: Al Jazeera