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Philippine court acquits Duterte critic in drug case

Leila De Lima was charged in 2017, shortly after she launched a senate investigation into the 'war on drugs'
Supporters of former Philippine senator and human rights campaigner Leila de Lima protest outside a court after she was acquitted on one of two remaining drug trafficking charges in Muntinlupa city, suburban Manila on May 12

Supporters of former Philippine senator and human rights campaigner Leila de Lima protest outside a court after she was acquitted on one of two remaining drug trafficking charges in Muntinlupa city, suburban Manila on May 12. (Photo: AFP)

Published: May 12, 2023 05:35 AM GMT
Updated: May 12, 2023 05:38 AM GMT

Jailed Philippine human rights campaigner Leila de Lima was acquitted Friday on one of two remaining drug trafficking charges filed against her under the Rodrigo Duterte administration, putting her a step closer to freedom.

De Lima, a former senator and justice minister, has been detained since February 2017 on charges she and human rights groups say were fabricated as payback for going after Duterte and his war on drugs that left thousands dead.

De Lima, 63, and another defendant were acquitted "on the ground of reasonable doubt," according to the ruling released by Manila trial court judge Abraham Alcantara.

"It's a glorious day. This is the beginning of my vindication," a relieved de Lima told reporters as police escorted her to a waiting bus after the verdict.

"May I say this to my oppressors: you can never crucify the truth."

Despite the acquittal, she will remain in jail as her trial in the other criminal case continues. She has applied for bail and is awaiting a judge's decision.

De Lima faces life in prison if convicted of the remaining charge.

She is accused of taking money from inmates inside the country's largest prison in exchange for allowing them to sell drugs while justice minister from 2010 to 2015 under then-leader Benigno Aquino.

But the prosecution's case has been falling apart, as two of their witnesses have died and a third charge against de Lima has been dismissed.

Multiple witnesses have recanted their testimonies, claiming they were coerced into making allegations.

"Vigilance in eradicating illegal drugs cannot come at the expense of disregarding the rule of law," the court ruling said.

'Long overdue'

The government welcomed the court's decision, while rights groups called for de Lima's immediate release from detention.

"The rule of law has prevailed and it just points out to us that the independence of the judiciary is a basic foundation of our democratic system. So it's good, it's good for us," Justice Secretary Crispin Remulla told reporters.

"The authorities must not delay her release any longer and allow her to be reunited with her family, friends and supporters after six long years," Montse Ferrer, Amnesty International's interim deputy regional director for research, said in a statement.

"Today, truth reigned over fake news. Today, justice reigned over injustice," de Lima's youngest brother Vicente de Lima told reporters.

Human Rights Watch Deputy Asia Director Phil Robertson said the acquittal demonstrated "the bogus, harassing nature of the charges".

A UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention concluded in 2018 that de Lima's detention was "arbitrary given the absence of a legal basis" and that her right to a fair trial had not been "respected".

Since President Ferdinand Marcos's election, there have been renewed calls from diplomats and rights defenders for de Lima to be released.

Before her arrest in 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 2016-2022 presidency.

She conducted the probes first while serving as the nation's human rights commissioner, then as justice secretary in the Aquino administration.

De Lima won a Senate seat in 2016, becoming one of the body's few opposition voices after Duterte's landslide victory.

Duterte then accused her of running a drug trafficking ring.

The charges that followed were an act of "vengeance" by Duterte to silence her and warn others not to oppose him, de Lima told AFP previously.

Campaigning from behind bars, de Lima made a failed bid for re-election to the Senate last year.

The lawyer and mother of two has been held in a compound for high-profile detainees, rather than in one of the Philippines' overcrowded jails.

It is not unusual for court cases to drag on for years in the country's creaky justice system, which is overburdened, underfunded and vulnerable to pressure from the powerful.

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