The Philippine Supreme Court on Tuesday dashed hopes it would overturn the politically motivated prosecution of the highest-profile critic of President Rodrigo Duterte’s murderous “war on drugs.”
The court voted 9 to 6 to uphold the arrest and detention of Senator Leila de Lima on drug charges. De Lima, a former justice secretary, has been an outspoken critic of Duterte’s anti-drug campaign that independent nongovernmental organizations and media outlets estimate has resulted in the deaths of more than 12,000 people over the past 15 months.
De Lima had argued that as a legislator, the country’s anti-graft court, or Sandiganbayan, had jurisdiction over her, not the criminal courts. But the Supreme Court ruled that the jurisdiction of the Sandiganbayan “is limited to violations of the anti-graft laws and do not extend to violations of the drugs law.” The decision means that de Lima will remain detained at Camp Crame, the headquarters of the Philippine National Police, in Manila, where she has awaited trial for nearly eight months.
De Lima, her former driver, and others 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 immunity from arrest for crimes punishable by fewer than six years’ imprisonment.
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 thousands of Filipinos killed by police and unidentified “vigilantes.” Duterte and his government have systematically sought to vilify, harass, and intimidate those who have pursued accountability for drug war crimes domestically and internationally. The targets of the harassment campaign include human rights organizations and activists, lawyers, United Nations officials, and journalists.
De Lima’s prosecution is a warning to all critics of Duterte’s “drug war” that demanding accountability for victims may spark vicious official reprisals. Concerned governments should press for an end to the deadly anti-drug campaign, publicly express their outrage at de Lima’s prosecution, and support a UN-led international investigation.