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Police arrest leading critic of Duterte

Former Philippine justice minister Senator Leila de Lima held on slew of drugs charges

Joe Torres, Manila

Joe Torres, Manila

Updated: February 24, 2017 10:29 AM GMT
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Police arrest leading critic of Duterte
Policemen escort Senator Leila de Lima into the Philippine National Police headquarters in Manila after her arrest at the Philippine Senate on Feb. 24. (Photo by Mike Taboy)
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A leading critic of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and his all-out war against narcotics, which has killed at least 7,000 people in the past seven months, was arrested on Feb. 24 on charges of receiving drug money and protecting drug offenders.

Senator Leila de Lima, a former justice secretary, declared as she was being led away from her office at the Senate, that she was innocent of charges that could see her jailed for life, claiming the accusations were "all lies" and part of Duterte's "repression."

"It is my honor to be imprisoned for the things I am fighting for. Please pray for me," De Lima said outside her Senate office as she was being arrested.

"As I have been saying all along, I am innocent. There is no truth to the charges I benefited from the drug trade, that I received money, and that I coddled drug convicts," she said.

The 57-year-old senator said the truth "will come out at the right time."

"They will not be able to silence me and stop me from fighting for truth and justice and against daily killings and repression by the Duterte regime," she said.

When Duterte was mayor of Davao, De Lima, who was then head of the Commission on Human Rights, initiated an investigation into killings in the southern Philippine city.

She also earned the ire of the president for her opposition to the "all-out war" against drugs that has been blamed for the death of some 7,000 suspected drug users and dealers at the hands of the police and self-styled anti-narcotics vigilante groups.


Day in court

Hours after De Lima's arrest, Archbishop Socrates Villegas of Lingayen-Dagupan, president of the bishops' conference, called on the public to "pray for the truth."

"[Let us] set our hearts aflame for the truth, the truth that sets all of us free," said the prelate who was also a target of attacks by Duterte for statements against the killings.

He reminded people that it is not Christian to find secret pleasure in the sufferings of others. "I pray for the healing of our land and for the reign of harmony," he added.

Rodolfo Diamante, executive secretary of the bishops' prison ministry, said "the truth will ultimately prevail," adding that "we will bend our knees so that the truth and the good will triumph over evil."

Oblate Father Eliseo Mercado said that although he did not agree with some of De Lima's "moves" during her term as justice secretary, "I do not believe all the accusations against her about illegal drugs."

The priest said the senator should have been heard before an arrest warrant was issued against her. "She is a senator of the republic," said Father Mercado.


De Lima's cases

Charges have been filed against De Lima in three separate courts for violation of the country's Dangerous Drugs Act, which penalizes the "sale, trading, administration, dispensation, delivery, distribution, and transportation of illegal drugs."

The senator has been accused of allegedly extorting money from inmates at the national penitentiary, who traded and trafficked drugs inside prison, to fund her senatorial bid in 2016.

Another case against De Lima is for allegedly tolerating the "widespread drug trade" inside the national penitentiary to extort money from inmates.

Another count was also filed against her for another alleged extortion incident with another inmate.

De Lima's lawyers have already filed "motions to quash" the charges before the courts, saying they were engineered to ensure she would not get bail.


Victory of war against drugs

Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez of the House of Representatives, an ally of Duterte, said De Lima's arrest is a "victory in the war against drugs" and "shows [that] justice is working in our beloved nation."

"No one is above the law, not even a senator of the republic," said the legislator.

Alvarez denied politics was behind the arrest of the senator, saying that a congressional investigation found that she benefited from the purported illegal drug trade inside the national penitentiary.

Political activists, meanwhile, said the public should look upon De Lima's arrest with "a sense of proportion and see things in a holistic perspective." 

Lawyer Edre Olalia of the National Union of People's Lawyers said that although De Lima's treatment "has all the appearances of political harassment ... it is unfair to selectively obscure hundreds of faceless names of principled political prisoners" who have been in detention for years.

"The stand for human rights cannot be selective, time-bound, and self-serving, even as we must view it holistically," said the human rights lawyer. 

"When things have calmed down and it's 'business as usual' for political accommodations, and self-righteous posturings have died down, the fundamental problems of our society and the need for genuine reforms, including consistently upholding the rule of justice without fear or favor, remain," said Olalia.

In a statement, activist youth group Anakbayan said the arrest of De Lima "is a sign of the intensifying rivalry among the various factions of the ruling classes and the worsening decay of the political system under the Duterte regime."

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