ASEAN Beat | Politics | Southeast Asia

Imprisoned Duterte Critic Held Hostage During Escape Attempt

The “near death experience,” as former Senator Leila de Lima characterized it, highlights the peril she has faced since her imprisonment on spurious drug charges in 2017.

Imprisoned Duterte Critic Held Hostage During Escape Attempt
Credit: Depositphotos

The imprisoned former Philippine senator Leila de Lima, a leading critic of the country’s ex-president Rodrigo Duterte, was briefly held hostage during a failed escape attempt by detained inmates linked to the Islamic State group.

Philippine police killed three Islamist militants on Sunday during an audacious attempt to escape the maximum security detention center at the Philippine National Police (PNP)’s Camp Crame headquarters in Quezon City, Manila.

According to The Associated Press, which cited police sources, the breakout attempt began at dawn when one of the three inmates stabbed a police officer who was delivering breakfast in an outdoor exercise yard. A police officer in a sentry tower responded by firing warning shots, and then shot and killed two of the prisoners when they refused to yield. A third inmate ran to de Lima’s cell and briefly held her hostage, but he was also shot by police before he could harm her.

The brief hostage situation highlights the very real dangers that de Lima has faced since her imprisonment five-and-a-half years ago on flimsy and transparently political drug charges. In a statement issued after Sunday’s hostage stand-off, de Lima described it as a “near-death experience,” according to BenarNews.

“I am now safe and sound except for the lingering pain on my chest where the hostage-taker pressed the point of his knife while holding me hostage,”  she said. “I have already endured more than five years of unjust detention inside the PNP Custodial Center… Being so near death has only made me value life even more.”

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In February 2017, the senator surrendered herself to the police after prosecutors filed criminal charges alleging her involvement in the trafficking of narcotics within the country’s prison system during the 2010-16 administration of Benigno Aquino, when she was justice secretary.

De Lima’s main transgression was to oppose Duterte’s sanguinary “war on drugs” that Duterte launched upon taking office in June 2016, which has since claimed thousands of lives.

In testimony to the Senate in August 2016, just over a month after Duterte took office, she lamented the “dehumanization” that the drug war had wrought, even at that early stage. “Impunity, once unleashed, has no boundaries,” she told the chamber. “Drugs destroy lives, but we need not destroy lives to destroy drugs.” By some counts, the campaign claimed the lives of more than 12,000 Filipinos during Duterte’s six years in power, most of them poor urban drug users.

Prior to that, she also chaired the government’s Commission on Human Rights and spearheaded investigations of summary executions carried out by “death squads” in the southern Philippine city of Davao City. Duterte was mayor of the city for more than two decades, during which time he road-tested the violent law and order methods that he would later launch on a national level as president.

De Lima’s punishment for opposing these policies was to be imprisoned alongside some of the most violent offenders in the custody of the PNP. Among the militants who attempted Sunday’s escape was Abduljihad “Idang” Susukan, commander of the Abu Sayyaf militant group that operates in the southern Philippines.

Arrested in 2020 in Davao City, Susukan has been blamed for dozens of killings and beheadings of hostages, including foreign tourists, in the southern Philippines and northern Malaysia. At the time of his arrest, he had a total of 34 warrants of arrest against him.

The other two inmates were suspected members of the Dawlah Islamiyah, a Muslim militant group that has been linked to bombings and other deadly attacks in the country’s south.

That a peaceful government critic would be sentenced to serve time alongside such violent offenders encapsulates the Duterte administration’s contempt for the rule of law and basic human rights – and the current administration is yet to prove that it deserves the benefit of the doubt.

In a tweet yesterday, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. said that he would speak to de Lima “to check on her condition and to ask if she wishes to be transferred to another detention center.” He offered no indication of whether his administration would move swiftly to quash the outstanding charges against de Lima and push for her release.