(New York) – The arrest of Philippine Senator Leila de Lima on politically motivated charges signifies the widening of President Rodrigo Duterte’s “war on drugs” to include critics and political foes, Human Rights Watch said today. De Lima, a former justice secretary, is the main critic of the anti-drug campaign that has killed more than 7,000 people. She is currently being held at Camp Crame, the headquarters of the Philippine National Police, in Quezon City, Metro Manila.
De Lima surrendered to the police on the afternoon of February 24, 2017, after a Manila court issued a warrant for her arrest following the filing of charges by the Department of Justice. De Lima, her former driver, and other individuals are accused of violating the country’s Dangerous Drugs Act, which prohibits the “sale, trading, administration, dispensation, delivery, distribution, and transportation of illegal drugs.” If convicted, de Lima faces between 12 years to life in prison. Under the Philippine Constitution, legislators only enjoy privilege from arrest for crimes punishable by fewer than six years’ imprisonment.
“By arresting Senator Leila de Lima on politically motivated drug charges, President Duterte is effectively expanding his ‘drug war’ from the urban poor to the legislative branch of the government,” said Phelim Kine, deputy Asia director. “Not only Congress, but other pillars of Philippine democracy, from the press to the judiciary, should be deeply worried.”
De Lima’s arrest followed a relentless government campaign of harassment and intimidation against her in response to her outspoken criticism of Duterte’s “war on drugs” and her demands for accountability for the more than 7,000 Filipinos killed by police and unidentified “vigilantes” in that campaign. In August 2016, de Lima convened hearings of the Senate Committee on Justice and Human Rights, which she chaired. The hearings exposed her to a torrent of harassment and intimidation from Duterte and other government officials. Duterte’s allies in the Senate immediately shut down the hearings and stripped de Lima of her leadership of the committee.
Duterte’s enmity toward de Lima – “I will have to destroy her in public,” the president said in August – began in 2009, when she investigated his alleged involvement in extrajudicial killings in Davao City, where Duterte was mayor for more than two decades. De Lima’s inquiry into the operations of the “Davao Death Squad” resulted in an official recommendation that the Office of the Ombudsman investigate Duterte’s “possible administrative and criminal liability” in connection to Davao Death Squad killings. In 2012, the ombudsman did not include Duterte in its investigation but found several police officers guilty of “neglect of duty” for failing to investigate the killings. The Court of Appeals later overturned the convictions.
Since then, Duterte has publicly expressed his hostility toward de Lima, vowing to “destroy” her. In subsequent congressional hearings called by Duterte’s allies, de Lima was subjected to ridicule and misogynistic attacks. Duterte subsequently claimed to possess several “sex tapes” of de Lima with her driver and publicly referred to her as an “X-rated actress.” Over the past six months, Duterte has continued his personal attacks, referring to de Lima’s “odious character” and repeatedly asserting that she will “rot in jail.” In one speech, Duterte said: “If I were de Lima, ladies and gentlemen, I’ll hang myself.”
De Lima’s arrest came in the wake of new allegations by a retired police officer, Arturo Lascanas, that when Duterte was mayor of Davao City, he personally ordered several killings by the Davao Death Squad. The accusations were consistent with testimony in the senate last year by Edgar Matobato, a self-confessed member of the death squad, that said he participated in Davao City killings on Duterte’s orders.
“The arrest of Senator de Lima is both a political attack on her and a warning to all critics of Duterte’s ‘drug war,’” Kine said. “Governments concerned about the future of the Philippines need to publicly express their outrage and bring pressure for an international investigation and an end to Duterte’s sinister and deadly campaign.”