Former senator and opposition politician Leila de Lima was released on bail in the amount of PHP 300,000 on November 13, 2023, after more than six years in prison. De Lima thanked President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. for upholding the independence of the court and the rule of law. However, the acquittal in her case is still pending. De Lima had fought against her politically motivated imprisonment for many years with great resilience.
De Lima was imprisoned in February 2017 for alleged involvement in drug trafficking. The charges came after she, as former Secretary of Justice, initiated an investigation into the extrajudicial killings of alleged drug users by the so-called “Davao Death Squad” of ex-president and then mayor of Davao City, Rodrigo Duterte, in 2012. In 2016, 16 senators voted to remove De Lima from her chairmanship of the Senate Committee on Justice and Human Rights in order to stop her political power to act against Duterte.
Numerous support groups of De Lima celebrated her long “overdue” grant of bail. Her case is also seen as an important inspiration in the fight to free all political prisoners in the Philippines. A US senator also urged the Philippine government to drop the last existing case against de Lima. Most of the incriminating statements against De Lima have already been withdrawn. A few days after her release, seven individuals from the Bilibid prison also withdrew their testimonies against De Lima on November 17, 2023. The Canadian and US embassies and the European Union delegation, among others, also welcomed de Lima’s temporary release.
Human Rights Watch believes that De Lima should not have been arrested in the first place, as she was merely carrying out her work. FORUM-ASIA Director Mary Aileen Diez-Bacalso demands that those responsible for the fabricated charges and false imprisonment should be held accountable. De Lima is already considering this through legal means.
According to Dino de Leon, a lawyer in De Lima’s legal team, there is also the possibility that de Lima will continue to cooperate with the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) investigation into alleged crimes against humanity in the so-called “war on drugs” under Rodrigo Duterte during his time as mayor of Davao City and president of the Philippines (2011-2019). The Philippine government refuses to cooperate with the ICC. However, on October 24, 2023, President Marcos announced that his government was considering rejoining the ICC. It is not clear whether the Marcos government also supports the ICC investigation.
Philippine Justice Secretary Jesus Crispin Remulla initially stated that the temporary release of de Lima was proof that the Philippines’ legal system was intact. Remulla has now also distanced himself somewhat from his previously hard-line position against the ICC investigation and said that the recommendations to resume co-operation with the ICC require “serious study.”
This came after Remulla called for an investigation of the statements made by the Makabayan bloc and other lawmakers in the House of Representatives. The lawmakers filed a resolution in the House of Representatives on October 17, 2023, calling on the government under President Marcos Jr. to reopen the ICC investigation. The call was supported by two further pending resolutions dated November 20, and 21, 2023, respectively, by another group of House of Representatives members.
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