Court clears Leila de Lima, frees her from detention

by Ricky Rillera

Former senator Leila De Lima, during a privilege speech, decried the spate of killings targeting alleged drug pushers and drug personalities, which she says disregards a person’s fundamental right to due process guaranteed to all under the Constitution. Photo by Alex Nuevaespaña on Wikimedia Commons

NEW YORK – After nearly seven years of detention, former Senator Leila de Lima, a long-time critic of former President Rodrigo Duterte, is free. The former opposition senator and justice secretary was jailed in 2017 on drug charges while investigating Duterte’s bloody anti-drug campaign.

In their ruling, the judges at the Muntinlupa City Regional Trial Court cleared De Lima and four co-defendants of conspiracy to commit drug trading “for failure of the Prosecution to prove the guilt of all the accused beyond reasonable doubt.” The same Court granted her bail in November last year. She was released from jail pending the resolution of the third complaint.

Three charges were filed against her. In February 2021, she was acquitted of the first complaint because of weak evidence. Key witnesses on her second charge recanted their testimonies, which led the Court to drop the case in May 2023. Her lawyers petitioned for bail on the final case against her, which the Court granted in November.

As she emerged from the courtroom, she told reporters, “I am now completely free and vindicated. It’s very liberating.” De Lima’s acquittal ends a long and punishing encounter with the Philippine justice system. She turned herself into police after prosecutors filed criminal charges alleging that she facilitated drug trafficking inside the country’s largest prison while she was justice minister between 2010 and 2015.

De Lima’s prosecutors alleged she took millions of pesos in exchange for disregarding the drug trade within the prison, which she used to run for the senate in 2016. However, she maintained that the charges, which carried a maximum penalty of life in prison, were fabricated to support the narcotics crackdown.

Before her arrest, De Lima was chair of the Senate Committee on Justice and Human Rights. In that capacity, she had begun a public inquiry into the thousands of extrajudicial killings believed to have been committed under Duterte’s anti-drug campaign.

With the Court’s ruling to drop the final case, human rights groups and foreign governments hailed the decision as a welcome end to a case viewed as a political revenge that it was.

Amnesty International described it as “full freedom and vindication” for De Lima and that “every day she spent in jail until her temporary release in November 2023 was a gross injustice.”

Wong Chen of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights said in a statement that the group was “delighted” by the outcome but called for “a thorough investigation into Senator de Lima’s arbitrary detention” to investigate what it termed a “gross miscarriage of justice.”

Matthew Miller, a U.S. State Department spokesperson, said Washington “welcomes the acquittal of former Philippine Senator Leila de Lima on the final criminal charge against her,” adding that “the United States remains committed to working with the Philippines to strengthen democracy and human rights around the world.”

At the same time, Miller also said, “(w)e continue to urge the Philippines to resolve politically motivated cases, including those against journalists and civil society, in a manner consistent with its international human rights obligations and commitments.”

The Philippine Daily Mirror contacted Filipino American community leaders to ask about their reaction to De Lima’s acquittal.

Ramon Prado Mappala of Queens, New York, was happy that De Lima got an acquittal. “She was part of a bigger scheme launched by the Duterte administration against the investigators of human rights violations and opposition personalities. PRRD’s fake war on drugs was a smoke screen to cover up illegal executions of opposition members, progressives, journalists, activists, lawyers, students, etc.”

Paul Versoza of New Jersey said he “supports De Lima’s plans to assist the ICC and her fight for complete vindication. Let the law take its course.” Earlier, he cited Rappler’s interview with De Lima after she was set free: “First, she (De Lima) has no plans to run for public office the next elections; second, she will assist ICC in its crime against humanity case vs. Duterte and company; third, she has forgiven those who prosecuted her except Duterte; and, fourth: for complete dismissal she will file charges against those who wrongly and falsely prosecuted her.”

“I’m glad that the arc of the moral universe (to borrow from Dr. King) is still bent toward justice, at least in Sen. De Lima’s case,” said Cristina Godinez, an immigration attorney in New York.”But what I want to celebrate is her grit and strength through all those years behind bars. Yan ang tunay na katapangan.”

“Senator De Lima’s acquittal, after being deprived of liberty for what appears to be politically motivated criminal charges, compels us to re-examine and strengthen safeguard for the protection of democracy and human rights, and defeat abuse of the legal process,” reacted Lara Gregory, a lawyer from Queens, New York. She added that her acquittal “should not only be the balm for the pain inflicted on her and her family, including her loss of freedom, financial consequences and damage to reputation.”

She asked: “How can those accountable restore and make everything whole to her and to her family?”

Update: (June 26, 2024: This article includes comments from Filipino Americans whose responses to the author’s requests were received after filing this report.

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