‘Glorious day’: Philippines’ Leila de Lima acquitted in drug case

Former senator and fierce critic of ex-President Rodrigo Duterte moves step closer to freedom after six years in detention.

Leila de Lima waves as she's escorted from court. She is wearing a face mask and is surrounded by police.
Leila de Lima waves to supporters as she leaves the court in suburban Manila [Ted Aljibe/AFP]

A court in the Philippines has dismissed one of two remaining drug charges against Leila de Lima, a former senator and outspoken critic of ex-president Rodrigo Duterte.

Leila de Lima was arrested in 2017 and accused of taking drug money just a few months after announcing a Senate investigation into Duterte’s so-called “war on drugs”, which rights groups say left thousands of mostly poor, young men dead.

The former senator and justice minister, now 63, and another defendant “are hereby acquitted of the crime charged on the ground of reasonable doubt”, said a written copy of the ruling released by regional trial court judge Abraham Alcantara.

“Glorious day,” a relieved de Lima told reporters as police escorted her out of the court, describing the result as the “beginning of my vindication”.

The hearing was closed to the media but about 50 supporters chanted “Free Leila Now” and “Junk the Fake Evidence” as they gathered outside.

Friday’s ruling brings de Lima, who is being held in detention at the National Police Headquarters, one step closer to freedom. She has already been cleared of one of the other three charges that she and rights groups have long maintained were fabricated.

Amnesty International said Friday’s decision was “long overdue”.

“We urge the authorities to also quash the remaining drug case and to ensure that her application for temporary freedom in this pending case is processed speedily and fairly,” Amnesty’s interim deputy regional director for research, Montse Ferrer, said in a statement.

“The authorities must not delay her release any longer and allow her to be reunited with her family, friends and supporters after six long years.”

De Lima is accused of taking money from inmates inside the country’s largest prison in exchange for allowing them to sell drugs while she was justice minister from 2010-2015 under then-leader Benigno Aquino, but key witnesses began retracting testimony as Duterte’s term in office came to an end.

Last April, self-confessed drug lord Kerwin Espinosa issued an affidavit and apology saying that his statements against de Lima were the result of “pressure, coercion, intimidation and serious threats to his life and his family”.

Later, prosecution witness Rafael Ragos, who was an officer-in-charge of the Bureau of Corrections in 2012, also retracted earlier court testimony in which he said he had delivered money from drug lords to de Lima. Ragos claimed his testimony was “false” and coerced by Duterte’s justice secretary Vitaliano Aguirre.

Following that retraction, de Lima’s defence team petitioned for bail on the outstanding charge and is waiting for the court to rule on the application.

A United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention concluded in 2018 that de Lima’s detention was “arbitrary given the absence of a legal basis” and that her right to a fair trial had not been “respected”.

Since President Ferdinand Marcos took power, there have been renewed calls from diplomats and rights defenders for de Lima’s release.

“The cases against de Lima are part of former President Duterte’s vindictive campaign to destroy her for daring to investigate the human rights abuses he committed while mayor of Davao City and later, as president of the Philippines,” Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch said in emailed comments.

As head of the Philippines human rights commission in 2009, de Lima began an investigation into drug-related killings in the southern city of Davao, where Duterte was mayor.

When he became president in 2016 and the bodies of alleged drug dealers began piling up, de Lima opened a Senate investigation into the “drug war”, which she felt resembled the operations of the so-called Davao Death Squad.

Duterte’s “drug war” is now the subject of an International Criminal Court investigation into possible “crimes against humanity”.

A UN report in 2021 found that 8,663 people had been killed in anti-drug operations but the Human Rights Commission of the Philippines and local human rights groups say the toll could be as much as three times higher.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies