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Jailed Philippine rights campaigner granted bail

It is not immediately clear when Leila de Lima, one of the most outspoken critics of ex-President Rodrigo Duterte, will walk free
Former Philippine senator and human rights campaigner Leila de Lima (center) waves at the media as she leaves the police custodial center at Camp Crame in Manila on Nov. 13

Former Philippine senator and human rights campaigner Leila de Lima (center) waves at the media as she leaves the police custodial center at Camp Crame in Manila on Nov. 13. (Photo: AFP)

Published: November 14, 2023 04:50 AM GMT
Updated: November 14, 2023 04:54 AM GMT

Philippine human rights campaigner Leila de Lima was "triumphant" on Monday when a judge granted her bail, putting her a step closer to freedom after nearly seven years behind bars.

De Lima, one of the most outspoken critics of former president Rodrigo Duterte and his deadly anti-drug war, was jailed on narcotics-related charges she says were fabricated to silence her.

The former senator, justice minister and human rights commissioner waved to supporters as she exited the Manila court, surrounded by police officers and journalists.

"This is a moment of triumphant joy and also thanksgiving," de Lima said before being taken back to prison briefly ahead of her release.

"I've been praying so hard for this day to come. It's very painful to be jailed despite being innocent."

De Lima, 64, is accused of taking money from inmates inside the largest prison in the Philippines to allow them to sell drugs while she was justice minister from 2010 to 2015.

Multiple witnesses, including prison gang bosses, died or recanted their testimonies, resulting in the dismissal of two of the three charges against de Lima.

She still faces life in prison if convicted on the remaining charge.

In a decision dated November 10, Judge Gener Gito allowed de Lima and her four surviving co-accused to post bail of 300,000 pesos ($5,350) each.

Hours after the bail announcement, de Lima left the national police headquarters where she had been held in a compound for high-profile detainees, rather than one of the country's overcrowded prisons.

"Precious freedom, free at last," she shouted to reporters as she was driven away.

'Unjustly prosecuted and detained' 

Since President Ferdinand Marcos came into office in June 2022 there have been renewed calls from human rights groups, foreign diplomats and politicians for de Lima's release.

Justice Secretary Crispin Remulla said the court's ruling showed "democracy is alive and well in our country".

Rights groups and foreign diplomats welcomed the bail decision.

"She never should have been unjustly prosecuted and detained by former President Rodrigo Duterte," Human Rights Watch deputy Asia director Bryony Lau said.

Lau said Duterte's administration "concocted evidence and used the machinery of an abusive state to punish her for performing her duties as a senator and speaking out against the 'war on drugs'."

Amnesty International called for the last remaining drug charge to be "dismissed expeditiously" and those behind her detention to "be brought to justice".

US ambassador to Manila MaryKay Carlson said: "We continue to follow her case closely and look forward to seeing the remaining charges against her resolved in accordance with Philippine law."

But Salvador Panelo, who was chief legal counsel for Duterte when he was president, insisted there was "strong evidence" that de Lima was guilty.

"The government can appeal the erroneous grant of bail by the lower court to the higher courts," Panelo said.

Before her arrest on February 24, 2017, de Lima had spent a decade investigating "death squad" killings allegedly orchestrated by Duterte during his time as Davao City mayor and in the early days of his presidency.

She conducted the probes while serving as the nation's human rights commissioner, and then from 2010 to 2015 as justice minister in the Aquino administration that preceded Duterte's rule.

De Lima became one of the few opposition voices after winning a Senate seat in the 2016 elections that also swept populist Duterte to power.

Duterte then accused her of running a drug trafficking ring with criminals when she was justice secretary, forcing her from the Senate and into jail.

De Lima lost her bid for re-election in May 2022 after campaigning from behind bars.

Duterte, who was constitutionally barred from seeking a second term as president, stepped down the following month.

De Lima has suffered various health problems while in jail, including a pelvic organ prolapse that required surgery.

She was also briefly taken hostage during an attempted breakout by three detained militants in October 2022.

Throughout the legal proceedings, de Lima has insisted the charges against her had been trumped up in retaliation for going after Duterte and his drug war that killed thousands of people.

"Now that I'm free I'm going to work hard to redeem my name," de Lima told reporters.

"Complete vindication is the key."

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