(Manila) – Philippine authorities should drop all charges and release Senator Leila de Lima, who has been in police detention since February 24, 2017, Human Rights Watch said today. A Muntinlupa City court acquitted her of one of three charges against her on February 17, 2021.
Prior to her arrest, de Lima, as chair of the Senate Committee on Justice and Human Rights, had begun a public inquiry into the “drug war” killings that started after President Rodrigo Duterte took office in June 2016. The authorities detained her at the headquarters of the Philippine National Police in Quezon City and eventually brought three drug charges against her. In detention, she has been held incommunicado for long periods, not allowed to use electronic devices, faced severe restrictions on visits, and has often been prevented by police escorts from talking to reporters on her way to court hearings.
“The fabricated charges against Senator Leila de Lima are not only an outrageous abuse of her basic rights, but also emblematic of the Duterte administration’s oppressive rule,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The Philippines authorities should drop the remaining charges against Senator de Lima, free her immediately, and fully restore her rights and privileges as a senator.”
The charges against de Lima, most of which are based on dubious testimony from convicted felons, appear intended by the Duterte administration to silence the president’s most outspoken critic, Human Rights Watch said. Early in his term, Duterte vowed to destroy de Lima who, in her previous role as chair of the national Commission on Human Rights, had investigated summary executions by “death squads” in Davao City, where Duterte was mayor for more than two decades.
In 2016, President Duterte and his allies stripped de Lima of the leadership of the Justice and Human Rights committee, effectively shutting down the investigation in which former Davao death squad members had testified that Duterte ordered the killings. At the same time, the Justice Department, which de Lima headed before running for the Senate, and leaders of the Duterte-controlled House of Representatives opened a withering and misogynistic vilification campaign against de Lima, fueled by social media. Duterte threatened to release a sex video of the senator and her driver that was later revealed to be fake.
The United Nations, foreign governments, and domestic and international human rights organizations have long spoken out against de Lima’s wrongful treatment. In 2018, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention declared that de Lima’s arrest and detention violated international law and that she should be freed. The UN Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights, in its report in June 2020, said de Lima had been “arbitrarily detained.” The US Congress passed a resolution in 2019 urging her release. The European parliament did the same in 2017, repeating the call in September 2020. Amnesty International named her a “prisoner of conscience” in 2018.
“Senator Leila de Lima’s unjust detention has had the effect not just of depriving her of liberty, but of intimidating Duterte’s critics, particularly in the political opposition,” Robertson said. “Her continued ordeal is a blot on human rights and democracy in the Philippines.”