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Philippine Church slams delayed release of Duterte critic

De Lima's ordeal on false charges highlights the current state of the nation's legal justice system, critics say

 Leila De Lima (left) speaks while Senator Risa Hontiveros listens during a press conference in Manila after her release on Nov 13.

Leila De Lima (left) speaks while Senator Risa Hontiveros listens during a press conference in Manila after her release on Nov 13. (Photo: AFP)

Published: November 15, 2023 10:15 AM GMT

Updated: November 15, 2023 10:40 AM GMT

Church leaders in the Philippines have expressed dismay over the delay in releasing the most prominent political prisoner and former senator Leila De Lima, a fierce critic of the ‘war on drugs,’ started by former president Rodrigo Duterte.

“Praise God for this good news. But, why only now? Why did it take this long for her to be granted bail?” asked Bishop Pablo Virgilio David of Kalookan, president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP).

De Lima was temporarily released on Nov. 13 after being held in police custody for over six years on drug charges.

As a sitting senator, De Lima launched a Senate-led probe into the bloody “war on drugs,” which, according to rights groups, claimed over 12,000 lives.

The delay has “made it so obvious that something is wrong with our justice system,” Bishop David said in a statement.

In 2009, De Lima, as the chair of the Commission on Human Rights, launched a probe into the suspected Davao Death Squad, started by Duterte, to zero in on criminals and drug peddlers as the mayor of the city for more than two decades.

The probe is reported to have unearthed a mass grave of human remains near a quarry and hundreds of deaths allegedly linked to the Davao Death Squad. 

In 2016, De Lima, who wrapped up her service as secretary of justice, was elected to the Senate when Duterte won the presidency on a platform of cracking down on illegal drugs in the Catholic-majority nation.

Duterte continued his 'war on drugs' as president and nearly 6,000 people were killed between 2016 and 2022 when he quit office. Many of the extrajudicial killings have taken place in the poorest areas of the country.

When he became president in 2016, Duterte vowed: “I will have to destroy her [De Lima] in public.”

In her message to Duterte after the release, De Lima said, “God forgive him and God bless him. He knows what he did to me.”

The International Criminal Court (ICC) has launched a probe against Duterte’s “war on drugs.”

De Lima, accused of facilitating drug trafficking in the largest prison in the Philippines while she was justice secretary from 2010 to 2015, was granted the release order after witnesses recanted their testimony.

“I am glad that De Lima has finally been set free. It is obvious that the false charges against her are due to her investigation of extra-judicial killings in the country which started in Davao under Duterte,” said Father Amado Picardal, former secretary of the CBCP.

“I hope that those responsible for this injustice as well as the mass murder in the country will finally be held accountable, especially by the International Criminal Court,” Picardal told UCA News.

Ferdinand Marcos Jr., who became president in 2022, has admitted that there have been abuses in government during Duterte's violent anti-drug campaign.

De Lima's release will encourage the Church “in her mission to seek justice for the victims of human rights abuses” committed by Duterte, Picardal added.

Father Picardal earlier worked with the Coalition Against Summary Execution, which opposed the Davao Death Squad.

Monsignor Ramon Stephen Aguilos of Palo Archdiocese said he is "definitely happy" over the release of De Lima.

"I rejoice with her and all who have long been praying and hoping for her eventual release," Aguilos said.

To have spent more than six years in detention for a trumped-up case speaks volumes of the present justice system, the priest added.

Father Christian Ofilan from Borongan diocese termed De Lima’s detention as a “great injustice.”

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