A Senator in the Philippines who has led the political fight against President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs was arrested on Friday morning on charges that she herself benefited from the drug trade while serving as the country’s Secretary of Justice.
The Senator, Leila de Lima, has fiercely denied the allegations since Duterte first levied them in August, describing them in a statement Friday as “manufactured stories” intended to make an example of her and “to intimidate, silence, and destroy anyone who dares challenge” Duterte.
“My arrest is an appalling sign of the return of a power-hungry, morally bankrupt and abusive government,” she said. “The Filipino people know your style, Mr. President. To put the rule of law in your hands, silence your critics, and destroy those who will go against your caprices.”
De Lima, 57, was elected to the country’s Senate last year, promising to continue the fight for human rights she commenced while leading the country’s Department of Justice from 2010 to 2015. Her election coincided with the election of President Rodrigo Duterte, the brutish longtime mayor of the southern city of Davao, where he earned the sobriquet of “the Punisher” for his vigilante crusade against crime and drug use, often reliant on extrajudicial killings.
He said he would use the same tactic on a national level if elected to the Philippines’ highest office and is making good on his promise: Duterte’s “war on drugs” has left more than 6,000 dead. De Lima was quick to speak out against it, introducing a Senate resolution to investigate the killings within two weeks of her taking office.
Duterte was quick to retaliate. In mid-August, he publicly declared that during her tenure as Secretary of Justice, de Lima had permitted the sale and use of drugs to flourish at New Bilibid Prison in metropolitan Manila in exchange for monetary kickbacks, which she used to fund her senatorial campaign. Her bagman in this scheme, Duterte said, was her longtime driver and bodyguard, Ronnie Dayan, with whom she had enjoyed a romantic relationship.
She was formally charged in October with drug trafficking, which could earn her up to two decades in prison. Plans to arrest her were announced last week; a local court issued a warrant for her arrest. She was finally arrested at the Senate on Friday.
“I have long prepared myself to be a political prisoner of this regime,” de Lima said in a statement issued after her arrest. “Rest assured that I will answer all the accusations against me in the proper time and venue. To the best of my ability, I will fulfill my duties as Senator of the Republic. Even in prison, even as I continue to be persecuted by this government, for as long as I live, I will continue fighting the good fight up to my very last breath.”