Duterte critic Leila de Lima released on bail in the Philippines | ET REALITY

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The Philippines has released on bail its most famous political prisoner, Leila de Lima, whose six-year detention served as a stark warning to those who dared to question former President Rodrigo Duterte’s brutal war on drugs.

His release on Monday was ordered by a Muntinlupa city court after five witnesses recanted their testimony in the case. Ms. de Lima, a former senator who had launched multiple investigations into Duterte’s war on drugs, was accused of accepting bribes from jailed drug traffickers. Although she was never convicted, she has been detained since February 2017 at the Manila police headquarters.

Ms. de Lima, 64, has long maintained that the charges were trumped up and that she was a victim of political persecution.

“Freedom, freedom, freedom: I am finally free!” he said in court after hearing the decision.

In a phone call from the courtroom, Ms. de Lima said: “Unbelievable. I am free after 2,024 days. He didn’t deserve to be in jail. It was very painful. “I don’t want others to experience this.”

For years, American lawmakers, the European Parliament and international human rights groups have called on the Philippine government to release Ms. de Lima. He UN working group on arbitrary detention founded in 2018 that her detention was arbitrary, adding that he was seriously concerned about comments Duterte and his allies had made against her after she called for an investigation into her government-sanctioned drug-related violence.

De Lima has been the public face of efforts against Duterte’s brutal campaign, which began shortly after he took office in 2016. Night after night, police shot dead men and boys. The Philippine National Police has said about 8,000 people have been killed in the violence, but human rights groups have reported higher numbers. Activists say a large majority of those killed were poor Filipinos, some of whom were young children or had nothing to do with the drug trade.

As chairwoman of the Philippine Commission on Human Rights in the late 2000s, de Lima led an investigation into the so-called Davao Death Squad, people hired to commit extrajudicial killings in Davao City when Duterte was its mayor. And as chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, de Lima investigated Duterte’s anti-drug campaign.

Shortly after, Duterte accused De Lima of having an affair with his driver; of making a sex tape that he claimed to have seen; and receiving millions of dollars in cash from convicted drug traffickers to finance his senatorial campaign. The latter charge became the basis of a criminal case against him.

Mrs. de Lima had previously been acquitted of two of the three charges brought against her. Her supporters are now hopeful that she will be acquitted of the latest charge, especially after the court’s ruling on Monday that the prosecution had not established strong evidence of guilt. The court said she could be released after posting bail of about $5,300.

His release is likely to improve the Philippine government’s image abroad. Many Western lawmakers have called for De Lima’s release from President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., who has made deepening his country’s alliance with the United States and other Western governments a cornerstone of his foreign policy. Marcos will travel to San Francisco on Tuesday to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit.

A US Congressional delegation led by Senator Edward J. Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts, visited Ms. de Lima in August 2022 and met with Mr. Marcos and his Attorney General, Jesús Crispin Remulla, to discuss human rights.

in a letter to Mr. Remulla In October 2022, Markey and her colleagues asked the Philippine government to “officially acknowledge the lack of evidence” against Ms. de Lima.

“By reviewing Senator Lima’s case, dropping the charges against her, and holding those responsible for her unjust detention accountable,” the letter said, “you and President Marcos Jr. can turn the page on the president’s abuses.” Duterte and demonstrate his commitment to the rule of law in the Philippines.”

Human rights activists and former colleagues of Ms. de Lima celebrated her release.

The decision was “the beginning of the end of this shameful episode in our democracy,” Risa Hontiveros, a Filipino senator, said in a statement.

“She should never have been unjustly prosecuted and detained by former President Rodrigo Duterte, whose government fabricated evidence and used the machinery of an abusive state to punish her for carrying out her duties as a senator and speaking out against the war on drugs,” Bryony said. . Lau, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

In July, Ms. de Lima told the Times that she was so confident in the chances of her bail plea being approved that she had begun shipping some of her belongings home. But she still worried about her readjusting to life after prison.

“I know there is no substitute for freedom,” he said. “But I feel anxious. I ask myself: am I ready for life outdoors? “This has been my home for years.”

Mrs. de Lima’s first task is to return to her hometown, Iriga City, to be with her sick mother. A staunch Catholic, Mrs. de Lima said she had “forgiven the witnesses who were used against me, because I know they were put in that position because of me.”

She added: “But I am not willing to forgive Duterte. “I ask the Lord to be the one to forgive him for now, because I just can’t do that.”

Jason Gutierrez contributed with reports.

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