Philippine Court Drops Final Drug Charge Against Leading Duterte Critic

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Philippine Court Drops Final Drug Charge Against Leading Duterte Critic

Former Senator Leila de Lima is finally free of the seven-year, politically motivated legal ordeal.

Philippine Court Drops Final Drug Charge Against Leading Duterte Critic

Former senator Leila de Lima, center, poses for a picture on her way to a press conference in Quezon City, Philippines, Nov. 13, 2023.

Credit: AP Photo/Aaron Favila

A Philippine court has dropped the last of three drug cases against former Senator Leila de Lima, a long-time critic of former President Rodrigo Duterte, freeing her from the politically motivated legal gauntlet that she has been forced to run for the past seven years.

A former opposition senator and justice secretary, De Lima was detained in 2017 on drug charges that she claims were manufactured in a bid to halt her Senate investigation into Duterte’s bloody anti-drug campaign.

According to a report by Rappler, judges at the Muntinlupa City Regional Trial Court in southern Manila cleared De Lima of the conspiracy to commit drug trading. The same court granted her bail in November, setting her free after almost seven years in detention. In its ruling, the court announced the acquittal of De Lima and four co-defendants, “for failure of the Prosecution to prove the guilt of all the accused beyond reasonable doubt.”

“I am now completely free and vindicated. It’s very liberating,” de Lima told reporters as she emerged from the courtroom yesterday. In a post on the social media network X, she wrote that “my heart is full with all the love pouring in today after the dismissal of all my cases.”

The acquittal brings to an end a long and punishing encounter with the Philippine justice system. In February 2017, de Lima turned herself in to police after prosecutors filed criminal charges alleging that she facilitated drug trafficking in the largest prison in the Philippines while she was justice minister between 2010 and 2015.

Three charges were eventually filed against her, the political motivations of which were obvious. Prior to her arrest, de Lima had served as chair of the Senate Committee on Justice and Human Rights, in which capacity she had begun a public inquiry into the thousands of extrajudicial killings believed to have been committed under Duterte’s anti-drugs campaign.

She had previously also chaired the government’s Commission on Human Rights in which capacity she spearheaded investigations of the activities of “death squads” in Davao City in the southern Philippines, where Duterte was mayor for more than two decades prior to becoming president in 2016.

But the legal cases against her crumbled under the merest weight of scrutiny. In February 2021, she was acquitted on the first charge on the basis of weak evidence. The second was dropped in May 2023, after key witnesses recanted their testimony. After these retractions, De Lima’s defense team petitioned for bail on the outstanding charge, arguing that she faced real dangers while in custody at the Philippine National Police headquarters in Manila, which she was granted in November of last year.

The final drug case overturned yesterday concerned the 2010-2015 period when De Lima was justice secretary. The prosecution alleged that she was complicit in the “widespread drug trade” inside the New Bilibid Prison’s maximum security compound. They allege that she took millions of pesos in exchange for turning a blind eye to the drug trade within the prison – money that she then used to run for the senate in 2016.

The dropping of the final case brought a chorus of acclamation from human rights groups and foreign governments, who hailed it as a welcome end to a case viewed almost universally as the political vendetta 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 get to the bottom of what it termed a “gross miscarriage of justice.”

A U.S. State Department spokesperson said that Washington “welcomes the acquittal of former Philippine Senator Leila de Lima on the final criminal charge against her.”