Former Philippine senator asks court to junk case against her

BenarNews staff
Former Philippine senator asks court to junk case against her Leila de Lima, a former Philippine senator and human rights campaigner, waves as she arrives at the Muntinlupa Trial Court in Manila, Feb. 27, 2023.
Jam Sta Rosa/AFP

Former Sen. Leila de Lima has appeared in a Manila court again to press her petition to dismiss the government’s case against her for lack of evidence, days after marking six years in jail on what she calls trumped-up charges. 

De Lima, the fiercest critic of former President Rodrigo Duterte, was arrested and jailed in 2017 on charges that she received payoffs through the illegal drug trade. But at least three witnesses presented by the Duterte administration backtracked on their testimony, saying they had been coerced into testifying against de Lima.

One of them was Rafael Ragos, the former Bureau of Corrections officer-in-charge whose earlier testimony alleged that de Lima had received bribe money from drug lords at the national penitentiary – the only testimony directly linking the former senator to drugs.

In a 33-page motion that her lawyer filed on Feb. 23, De Lima’s team asked the Muntinlupa City Regional Trial Court (RTC) Branch 204 to free her and her former driver Ronnie Dayan by allowing them to post bail. She appeared at the court on Monday as a crowd of her supporters stood outside.

“At the very least, [De Lima] should be granted her constitutional right to bail in light of the retraction of the only testimony offered by the prosecution that supposedly directly links her to the offense charged,” according to the motion.

“No room for doubt is left as to the fabricated and manufactured nature of his earlier testimony for the prosecution,” it said, describing Ragos’ testimony as “nothing but a fictitious and imagined story.”

Ragos personally apologized to De Lima when they met at a court hearing in November 2022. He said he had been pressured into filing the charges.

De Lima has denied all the charges against her, and the courts dismissed one of the three charges in February 2021. A bribery case, filed before the Office of the Ombudsman who is responsible for prosecuting erring public officials, was also dismissed because of inconsistencies in testimonies against her.

De Lima had stoked Duterte’s ire for leading investigations into alleged extrajudicial killings committed by his so-called Davao Death Squad, when he was then mayor of the southern city of Davao. 

She first investigated the issue in Davao City in 2009 when she chaired the Commission on Human Rights. When she became senator in 2016, she was the first to sound the alarm on the spate of killings during the first few months of Duterte’s term as president, and launched a Senate probe.

Duterte unleashed verbal tirades against her, attacking her even in his official speeches. His allies in Congress followed and launched investigations that ended up exposing her personal life.

Protesters in Manila gather near a poster calling for opposition Philippine Sen. Leila de Lima to be released from prison, Feb. 23, 2019. [Jojo Riñoza/BenarNews]

Resounding calls for release

International human rights groups and lawmakers, as well as De Lima’s local allies, have reiterated their calls for her to be released from custody.

In June 2022, European Union officials highlighted de Lima’s situation when they urged then-incoming President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. to address concerns over human rights.

In August, a high-level U.S. congressional delegation led by Sen. Ed Markey visited De Lima in her detention cell at the Philippine National Police Custodial Center. Markey also met with Marcos and Justice Secretary Jesus Crispin Remulla.

Days before her sixth year in detention, members of the European Parliament Subcommittee on Human Rights visited de Lima, a move that “buoyed my spirit, as it is yet again an affirmance of the universal acceptance of my causes,” de Lima said.

Apart from her prolonged detention, the ex-senator’s life was directly threatened when she was held hostage inside her cell in October 2022 by an inmate trying to escape. The police killed the suspect and his two companions, but there has been no further investigation into the incident so far.

In a note that she penned from her cell on Friday – the day marking her six years in jail – De Lima said she had been fighting “the good fight” and that she would not waver in her commitment.

“When they thought I would buckle under the pressure of their oppression, I proved that my commitment to the rule of law, to human rights and specifically to speaking up for the victims – mostly poor and defenseless – of the so-called war on drugs is stronger than any wall they can put between me and the outside world,” De Lima wrote.

“Six years I stood my ground.”

The former senator has never abandoned her faith or her fight championing human rights, her brother said.

“She’s making herself fit. She believes in her faith that soon, when she gets released, there’s a lot of work to be done. She continues to stand up for democracy and human rights in this country,” Vicente De Lima II said in a speech at an event calling for his sister’s freedom.

Amnesty International meanwhile called on the Marcos administration to end the political persecution of De Lima.

“It is a travesty that Leila de Lima has endured six years in detention after bogus charges were brought against her in cases that have utterly collapsed. As witness after witness withdraws their testimony, the Marcos administration must put an end to her ongoing persecution,” Rachel Chhoa-Howard, Southeast Asia researcher for Amnesty International, said in a statement last week.

Marcos has dismissed calls for him to use his executive powers to release De Lima, saying he did not want to interfere with the court handling her case.


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