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Long-jailed former Philippine senator who fought drug crackdown is granted bail

Jailed former Senator Leila de Lima reacts after she goes out of the Muntinlupa City trial court on Monday, Nov. 13, 2023 in Muntinlupa, Philippines.
Aaron Favila
Jailed former Senator Leila de Lima reacts after she goes out of the Muntinlupa City trial court on Monday, Nov. 13, 2023 in Muntinlupa, Philippines.

MANILA, Philippines — A Philippine court on Monday ordered the release on bail of a former senator jailed more than six years ago on drug charges she said were fabricated to muzzle her investigation of then-President Rodrigo Duterte's brutal crackdown on illegal drugs. Two other non-bailable drug cases against her have been dismissed.

The European Union Parliament, some American lawmakers and United Nations human rights experts have long demanded the release of Leila de Lima, who was detained as an opposition senator in February 2017 in what they say was political persecution by Duterte and his allies and a major blow to Philippine democracy.

Duterte, whose stormy six-year term ended in June last year, insisted on her guilt, saying that witnesses testified that she received payoffs from imprisoned drug lords.

Regional Trial Court Judge Gener Gito reversed an earlier decision Monday and granted de Lima's request for bail while being tried in a final drug case.

Dozens of de Lima's supporters cheered after the decision was announced by the court in suburban Muntinlupa city in the capital, where armed police escorts brought her from detention in a security convoy.

"It's really an indescribable feeling. I'm starting from zero the life that they tried to destroy," de Lima told The Associated Press shortly after her bail was approved. Lawyers said they hoped she could return home on Monday.

"It's a long human rights nightmare that has ended," Catholic priest Fr. Robert Reyes, a key de Lima supporter, said at the court. "But there is still a lot of work to do to exact accountability for what happened to her."

As the chief of the country's Commission on Human Rights in 2009, de Lima led an investigation into widespread killings of drug suspects under then-Mayor Duterte in southern Davao city. She failed to find any witnesses who were willing to testify publicly against the local leader. She then served as the country's justice secretary.

In 2016, Duterte won the presidency by a wide margin on an anti-crime platform and de Lima was elected to the Senate and pursued an investigation into his campaign against illegal drugs. Authorities moved early to build cases against her, obtaining testimonies from imprisoned drug lords, and then placed her under arrest.

According to police records, more than 6,000 mostly poor suspects were killed under Duterte's drug crackdown as president. Human rights groups say the death toll was considerably higher. The International Criminal Court has been investigating the killings in what an ICC prosecutor said could be a case of crimes against humanity.

Although isolated for years from the outside world in a maximum-security detention center in the main police headquarters in the capital, de Lima continued issuing hundreds of handwritten statements from detention as a senator, mostly her criticisms of Duterte's governance and thoughts on strengthening human rights.

De Lima ran for re-election to the Senate in May last year under the main opposition bloc but the trial court rejected her request to be allowed to campaign. She instead sent a life-size cutout image which allies displayed on the campaign trail, but she lost.

She blamed Duterte, who she said "demonized" her and subjected her to misogynistic attacks that she was unable to address from jail.

Calls for her immediate release mounted in October last year after she was taken hostage in a rampage by three Islamic State group-linked Muslim militants, who were killed by police guards in a failed attempt to escape from jail.

De Lima said one of the hostage-takers tied her hands and feet, blindfolded her and pressed a weapon in her chest and demanded access to journalists and a military aircraft to escape. The man threatened to kill her until he was gunned down by a police negotiator at close range, officials said.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

The Associated Press
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