A Philippine court has dismissed a drug charge against Leila De Lima, a former senator who has spent the past six years in detention and is one of the most vocal critics of ex-President Rodrigo Duterte’s bloody “war on drugs.”
The court on Friday acquitted De Lima, 63, on one of two remaining criminal charges against her, which stem from allegations made by the former president that she received payoffs from convicted drug lords to fund her 2016 senatorial bid.
De Lima, a former justice minister, was acquitted along with another defendant “on the ground of reasonable doubt,” according to the ruling by regional trial court judge Abraham Alcantara.
“I had no doubt from the very beginning that I will be acquitted in all the cases the Duterte regime has fabricated against me based on the merits and the strength of my innocence,” De Lima said in a statement on Twitter after the verdict.
More than 6,000 people have been killed in anti-drug operations since Duterte launched his controversial drug war soon after taking office in 2016, according to police data.
Many of the extrajudicial killings of suspected drug offenders have occurred in the poorest areas of the country – and independent monitors believe the number of those killed could be much higher.
De Lima was arrested in 2017, on charges she and her supporters have long argued are fabricated and politically motivated. Her arrest came a few months after she launched a senate investigation into Duterte’s drug war.
She is now seeking bail for a third drug case and will remain in detention despite the court’s latest dismissal.
“That’s already two cases down, and one more to go,” she said on Twitter.
“I am of course happy that with this second acquittal in the three cases filed against me, my release from more than six years of persecution draws nearer. I am extremely grateful to all those who stood by and prayed for me all these years,” she said.
‘Crimes against humanity’
Human rights activists have long criticized the detention of De Lima, pointing out that she has not been convicted on any of the charges laid against her.
They characterize her treatment as emblematic of a deteriorating rights situation in a country where political activists and the media often face threats, harassment and even death simply for doing their jobs.
“De Lima should never have spent a day in prison, but instead she’s languished there for six years. The government must urgently give her the freedom and justice she deserves after such an appalling ordeal,” said Rachel Chhoa-Howard, Southeast Asia researcher for Amnesty International.
“The numerous retractions of fabricated testimonies and alarming allegations of coercion are further damning evidence of the government’s undeniable role in De Lima’s arbitrary and lengthy detention, which clearly violates her rights to liberty, presumption of innocence and other fair trial guarantees.”
In January, the International Criminal Court said it would revive its investigation into possible “crimes against humanity” over Duterte’s drug war. The Hague-based court initially announced plans for an investigation in February 2018 but suspended them in November 2021 at the request of Manila after it said it was undertaking its own review.
However, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. – who succeeded Duterte last year – has said the country will “disengage” from any contact with the ICC, as Manila did not recognize its authority over matters of national sovereignty.