Church and rights groups on Monday welcomed the decision of the courts in Manila to grant the bail petition of former Senator Leila de Lima after nearly seven years behind bars.
“This freedom, albeit temporary, is fought for by the former senator and the people who support her despite the repression and culture of impunity,” said Fr. Flaviano Villanueva, mission and Justice, Peace, and Integrity of Creation coordinator of the Society of the Divine Word.
The priest, who has been campaigning for De Lima’s freedom, said the court’s decision is “a victory, not just for her, but for the human rights sector”.
De Lima, one of the most outspoken critics of former 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 minister, and human rights commissioner waved to supporters as she exited the Manila court, surrounded by police officers 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.”
In a decision dated November 10, Judge Gener Gito allowed de Lima and her four surviving co-accused to post bail of 300,000 pesos ($5,350) each.
Bryony Lau, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said the de Lima’s struggle “has inspired a generation of human rights defenders in the Philippines and beyond”.
“She 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 as a senator and speaking out against the “war on drugs”,” said Lau.
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 minister 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.
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.”
Since President Ferdinand Marcos came into office in June 2022 there have been renewed calls from human rights groups, foreign diplomats, and politicians for de Lima’s release.
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 February 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 minister in the Aquino administration that preceded Duterte’s rule.
After winning a Senate seat in the 2016 elections that also swept populist 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.
Throughout the legal proceedings, de Lima has insisted the charges against her had been trumped up in retaliation for going after Duterte and his drug war that killed thousands of people.
“What is more important is the end result that Senator Leila de Lima will get the justice she rightfully deserved,” Tacardon said Monday.
Ecumenical youth group Student Christian Movement of the Philippines said de Lima’s “calvary is sadly just the tip of the iceberg,” adding that nearly 800 political prisoners remain behind bars.
Kej Andres, national chairperson of the group said it is a “grave sign of continuing and worsening the culture of impunity in our country”.
Rights group Karapatan reported 778 political prisoners as of June 2023. The group said many have these political detainees have been “charged with trumped-up charges while doing community development and human rights work”.
Out of the 778 political prisoners as of June 2023, 49 have been arrested under the current Marcos Jr. administration, 77 are elderly, 95 are sickly, and 157 are women.
“With many political prisoners still languishing behind bars, truly, justice delayed is justice denied especially for the sick and elderly ones,” said Andres.
He added that with the development of de Lima’s case, “we hope that more Filipinos would join the crusade in freeing all political prisoners and exposing and denouncing the atmosphere of brazen political persecution under Marcos and Duterte”. – with reports from AFP