MANILA – After an unblemished career in the Philippines as a lawyer, the Philippines’ Human Rights Commission chair and former justice secretary, Senator Leila de Lima, was imprisoned three years ago.
She fell out of favor with President Rodrigo Duterte’s government after opening an investigation into abuses committed as a part of its war on drugs.
A staunch critic of Duterte, the senator raised her voice against his brutal campaign from the start and currently remains imprisoned on accusations of conspiring with drug traffickers, charges that she and her and supporters claim are fabricated to silence and punish her for political dissent.
Her imprisonment, without prior conviction, is the most flagrant case of political persecution in the Philippines. However, this is not an isolated incident under Duterte, who has cracked down on opposition politicians, activists, journalists critical of his policies and human rights activists.
“Let me say it again: I am INNOCENT of the trumped-up drug charges against me. I may not be a perfect person, but I have never betrayed my duty as a public servant,” read a Monday post on her official Twitter page, on the third anniversary of her imprisonment.
Banned from private visits or television, computer and telephone access, De Lima has continued fulfilling her obligations as senator, and behind bars has even approved and signed into law four legislative bills Duterte introduced.
During his tenure, eight legislators have faced criminal charges, 250 activists have been killed, 540 remain imprisoned for political reasons, and more than 87,500 have been harassed or intimidated, according to the Karapatan organization.
“The spurious use of the law has a destructive power used by repressive governments to persecute and silence adversaries – that is being used for personal and political gains,” De Lima said in a handwritten message sent to a Friday forum about the use of law as a weapon against the political dissidents, held in her honor at De La Salle University in Manila.
“While many people might think she’s probably defeated, cowed or depressed, she’s not. She continues to be strong, fighting for justice and inspired by all the support,” her brother Vicente de Lima told EFE.
The United Nations, Inter-Parliamentary Union, ASEAN parliamentarians, the US Senate, the European Parliament and other human rights organizations have denounced her arrest as unfair and arbitrary and consider her a prisoner of conscience.
“Every day that Senator de Lima remains detained is another day of injustice, not only against her but against all Filipinos whose rights have been trampled on by a violent and repressive government,” said Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Forum-Asia in a joint statement Monday.
Her arrest came shortly after she pushed a Senate investigation into the extrajudicial executions in Duterte’s war on drugs and offered to cooperate with the International Criminal Court, which earned her recognition abroad.
The first hearing of the trial did not happen until February 2019, in which she was accused of accepting bribes from drug traffickers – charges based solely on statements by detained traffickers. Her defense team has alleged they have been made to give false testimony in return for reduced sentences.
However, the president’s enmity with the senator dates back to 2009, when De Lima as the chair of the national Commission on Human Rights, opened an investigation into the so called death squads active in Davao against drug addicts and the opposition, when Duterte was the mayor of the city.
The De Lima case is not the only example of judicial harassment in the Philippines. Another regular target of the Duterte administration is former Senator Antonio Trillanes, another vocal detractor of the president charged with sedition.
“It’s time to wake up from this indifference. Our democracy itself is in great danger,” Trillanes – who has 20 pending criminal cases against him – said at the Friday forum.
The former senator had to seek bail again last week to evade a new arrest warrant for sedition, for his alleged involvement in videos linking the Duterte family to drugs, released on social media last year.
“All these cases are empty. I never plundered nor killed, that’s why the cases being filed against me are mere political cases, for the sake of harassing me,” he said.
About 36 detractors of Duterte face this same accusation of sedition, defamation and obstruction of justice. De Lima and Vice President Leni Robredo have also faced similar charges, although charges against them have been dropped for lack of evidence.
Trillanes, who has rejected offers of political asylum from two European countries, claimed that the use of the law as a weapon was not new in the Philippines, as it was employed by former presidents, Ferdinand Marcos and Gloria Arroyo “to put fear in the hearts of people” although Duterte has taken it “to the extreme.”
The instrumentalization of the law for partisan purposes is a reality in the Philippines, where the entire judicial mechanism – the Supreme Court, the public prosecutor’s office and the Ombudsman – are now controlled by Duterte’s allies.
In May 2018, the president managed to remove then Supreme Court Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, after she criticized his authoritarian ways and his campaign against drugs.
“We have to defend our Constitution as we have never defended it before and actively participate in national life to make our voices heard,” Sereno said on the society’s responsibility to preserve democracy in the Philippines, the oldest in Asia.