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Duterte Critic Leila de Lima Granted Bail After Six Years in Jail

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Former Philippine Senator Leila de Lima, who was jailed in 2017 after her vocal campaign against then-President Rodrigo Duterte’s “war on drugs,” has been released on bail after more than six years in detention.

The 64-year-old De Lima, who was granted bail by a local court on Monday, was tearful upon hearing the court ruling. “It pains me to be jailed without doing anything wrong,” said an emotional de Lima outside the court. “And I don’t want this to happen to anyone else. But I don’t want to be sad or bitter today. This is a moment of triumph.”

De Lima remains on trial for one drug-related case, after being acquitted for two others. De Lima was accused of receiving drug-related money to fund her 2016 senatorial bid, after she launched an inquiry into Duterte’s anti-illegal narcotics campaign while she was a senator in 2016. De Lima has repeatedly denied the accusations.

The European Union's ambassador to the Philippines, Luc Veron said in a post on X (formerly Twitter) that he was "very pleased by the news of [de Lima’s] release.” The E.U. is one of several international groups that have called for her release since her imprisonment.

"A significant step for #RuleOfLaw in the Philippines. A positive turn in the pursuit of justice! I hope that resolution of the remaining charges will be accelerated," Veron said.

In a statement, Human Rights Watch’s deputy Asia director Bryony Lau said de Lima “never should have been unjustly prosecuted and detained by former President Rodrigo Duterte, whose administration concocted evidence and used the machinery of an abusive state to punish her for performing her duties.”

Duterte’s war on drugs has been rebuked internationally for the thousands of related extrajudicial killings of alleged drug users and dealers. As former human rights commissioner and Justice Secretary, De Lima launched probes into the so-called “Duterte death squad,” which allegedly carried out the killings during Duterte’s time as Davao City mayor before he became the country’s president. 

De Lima continued the probe when Duterte sat as President in June 2016, and when she was elected Senator. As part of Duterte’s presidential campaign promises, his administration launched the nationwide drug war.

Months later, Duterte publicly claimed that while de Lima was Justice Secretary, she enabled the drug trade at Metro Manila’s New Bilibid Prison to proliferate in exchange for kickbacks to fund her senatorial campaign. The former President also accused de Lima’s bodyguard as an accomplice. Most of these inquiries into her involvement were televised. This culminated in her arrest in March 2017.

By the end of Duterte’s term in 2022, more than 6,000 had been killed in Philippines anti-drug operations, according to police data. Human rights organizations estimate the death toll to be in the tens of thousands.

Ferdinand Marcos Jr., who took over the presidency in 2022, admits that there have been abuses in government during his predecessor’s deadly anti-drug campaign. An independent watchdog, however, claims that the drug-related killings are continuing to take place.

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