The acquittal of former Senator Leila de Lima in the second of three drug cases against her and her likely continued custody in police detention highlight the political nature of the charges against her.
De Lima, who has now been in detention for more than six years, was acquitted for allegedly trading illegal drugs while she was secretary of justice, after being acquitted in the first case against her in 2021. Both cases were evidently fabricated and there is no reason to think that the third case against her is any more credible.
Then-President Rodrigo Duterte directed de Lima’s persecution in response to her attempts to investigate killings that took place in the early stages of Duterte’s “war on drugs” in 2016. But Duterte’s enmity toward her started in the late 2000s when, as chair of the Commission on Human Rights, de Lima began an investigation into killings attributed to a “death squad” operating in Davao City, where Duterte was the mayor. The International Criminal Court (ICC) is investigating those killings as well as numerous “drug war” killings that took place while Duterte was president. In 2019, as part of his efforts to avoid international justice, Duterte withdrew the Philippines from the ICC’s Rome Statute, which obligates states party to the treaty to cooperate with the court.
While de Lima’s latest acquittal brings hope that her unjust detention may be ending sooner rather than later, she never should have been prosecuted or held in pretrial detention without bail. Duterte’s improper influence over the Department of Justice was evident by the recanting of the testimony of three key witnesses in this case, saying they had been coerced.
This is an opportunity for the Department of Justice to regain some of its credibility by dropping the outstanding case against de Lima. But there also needs to be accountability. President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., who last week conceded abuses were committed in the “war on drugs,” should urgently launch an inquiry into how the levers of the justice system were manipulated against de Lima and implement reforms to ensure such politicization of the justice system never happens again.