Philippine court clears Duterte critic Leila de Lima of drugs charges

Former senator and justice secretary was jailed during the Rodrigo Duterte presidency after questioning his drug war.

Leila de Lima following the court decision. She looks pleased.
Leila de Lima leaves the court after all remaining criminal charges against her were dropped [Jam Sta Rosa/AFP]

A Philippine court has dropped the last of three cases against former Senator Leila de Lima, a longtime critic of former President Rodrigo Duterte and his “war on drugs”.

De Lima was targeted with various charges in 2017 within months of launching a senate inquiry into Duterte’s bloody anti-drugs campaign, in which thousands of users and dealers were killed by police or in mysterious circumstances.

Critics and rights groups accuse the police of the summary execution of drug suspects. The police deny the charges, saying they acted in self-defence.

Duterte, whose single term ended in 2022, accused de Lima of colluding with drug gangs while she was justice minister.

“I am now completely free and vindicated. It’s very liberating,” an emotional de Lima told reporters as she emerged from the southern Manila court on Monday, where the case against her was dismissed due to insufficient evidence.

“My heart is full with all the love pouring in today after the dismissal of all my cases,” she wrote in a post on X.

De Lima was spent more than six years in jail while on trial for three drug-trafficking charges.

She was freed on bail in November last year, having earlier been cleared of the two other drug charges.

The final drug case that was overturned on Monday concerned the years 2010-2015 when she was justice minister, with allegations that she took money from inmates inside the country’s largest prison to allow them to sell drugs.

De Lima maintained that the charges, which carried a maximum penalty of life in prison, were fabricated in an effort to support the narcotics crackdown.

Multiple witnesses, including prison gang bosses, died or recanted their testimonies during the lengthy trials.

The court on Monday also dismissed another charge alleging de Lima pressured a former employee to ignore a 2016 summons issued by the House of Representatives for a hearing in relation to the trade of illegal drugs in Philippine prisons.

That case, the only other criminal proceeding against her, had carried a penalty of anywhere between a fine and six months in prison.

Amnesty International welcomed the dismissal of the “bogus charges” against de Lima, saying it was long overdue.

“This is full freedom and vindication, finally for Leila de Lima after her nearly seven years of arbitrary detention, as well as relentless political persecution,” Montse Ferrer, Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director for Research, said in a statement.

The court’s decision was also welcomed by ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights

“Despite the apparent flaws in the Philippine justice system, its judiciary remains independent and was able to see what activists, experts and human rights defenders the world over have known for years: that the drug charges brought against Senator de Lima are baseless and that she should not have spent a day in detention,” APHR Board member and Malaysian member of parliament Wong Chen said in a statement.

Duterte is facing an investigation by the International Criminal Court over the anti-drugs campaign. De Lima said on Monday that she would continue to help the court in its work.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies