Jailed Philippine human rights campaigner Leila de Lima was “triumphant” yesterday after a judge granted her bail, putting her a step closer to freedom after nearly seven years behind bars.
De Lima, one of the most outspoken critics of former Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte and his deadly anti-drug war, was jailed on narcotics-related charges she says were fabricated to silence her.
The former senator, justice secretary and human rights commissioner waved to supporters as she exited the Muntinlupa City Regional Trial Court in Metro Manila, surrounded by police and journalists.
“This is a moment of triumphant joy and also thanksgiving,” De Lima said before boarding a minibus to be taken back to prison.
“I’ve been praying so hard for this day to come. It’s very painful to be jailed, despite being innocent,” she added.
Her lawyer, Filibon Tacardon, said De Lima “cried” when the decision was announced in the court.
“We expected the bail solely because of the merits of the case,” Tacardon told reporters.
“We believe that she’s innocent — we all believe that she’s innocent and all these charges are trumped up,” he said.
De Lima, 64, is accused of taking money from inmates inside the largest prison in the Philippines to allow them to sell drugs while she was justice secretary from 2010 to 2015.
Multiple witnesses, including prison gang bosses, died or recanted their testimonies, resulting in the dismissal of two of the three charges against De Lima.
She still faces life in prison if convicted on the remaining charge. In a decision dated Nov. 10, Judge Gener Gito allowed De Lima and her four surviving codefendants to post bail of 300,000 pesos (US$5,349) each.
It was not immediately clear when De Lima would walk free from the national police headquarters, where she has been held in a compound for high-profile detainees, rather than one of the country’s overcrowded prisons. Tacardon said he hoped it would be later yesterday.
Since Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr came into office in June last year, there have been renewed calls from human rights groups, foreign diplomats and politicians for De Lima’s release.
Rights groups welcomed the bail decision.
“She never should have been unjustly prosecuted and detained by former president Rodrigo Duterte,” Human Rights Watch deputy Asia director Bryony Lau said.
Lau said Duterte’s administration “concocted evidence and used the machinery of an abusive state to punish her for performing her duties as a senator and speaking out against the ‘war on drugs.’”
Amnesty International called for the last remaining drug charge to be “dismissed expeditiously” and those behind her detention “be brought to justice.”
Before her arrest on Feb. 24, 2017, De Lima had spent a decade investigating “death squad” killings allegedly orchestrated by Duterte during his time as Davao City mayor and in the early days of his presidency.
She conducted the probes while serving as the nation’s human rights commissioner, and then from 2010 to 2015 as justice secretary in former Philippine president Benigno Aquino III’s administration that preceded Duterte’s rule.
After winning a Senate seat in the 2016 elections that also swept Duterte to power, De Lima became one of the few opposition voices.
Duterte then accused her of running a drug trafficking ring with criminals when she was justice secretary, forcing her from the Senate and into a jail cell. De Lima lost her bid for re-election in May last year after campaigning from behind bars.
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