Leila de Lima

‘Set her free’: De Lima hostage-taking puts her continued detention in spotlight

Sofia Tomacruz

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‘Set her free’: De Lima hostage-taking puts her continued detention in spotlight

'FREE LEILA.' Supporters of former Senator Leila De Lima gather outside the Muntinlupa Regional Trial Court as de Lima attends a hearing in one of her two remaining drug cases, on October 10, 2022.


International groups launch a renewed push for the immediate release of former senator Leila de Lima who was held hostage in the Camp Crame Custodial Center

MANILA, Philippines – For over five years and counting, former senator Leila de Lima has been detained in the Camp Crame Custodial Center, waiting out the resolution of drug-related charges filed against her by the Duterte administration in 2017.

But that wait turned deadly on Sunday morning, October 9, after the former lawmaker and justice secretary was held hostage inside her cell during a botched escape attempt by 3 inmates linked to Islamist terrorist groups.

Described by the opposition figure as a “near-death experience,” the ordeal raised questions about how the security lapse occurred at the high-profile jail, and why – despite recanted testimonies from witnesses and an acquittal in 1 of 3 cases – De Lima continued to remain behind bars.

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“That she is still being detained together with suspected members of terrorist organizations is a travesty of justice, especially given the dubious charges against her,” The Bureau of Liberal International (LI) and the Executive Committee of Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats (CALD) said in a statement on Monday, October 10.

The group is only the latest among several bodies to reiterate its concern over De Lima’s detention, with lawmakers in the United States, Europe, and Australia long calling for her immediate release.

“Former Senator de Lima has already suffered enough for more than five years on charges that could not stand in court, as highlighted by the recent recantations of three key prosecution witnesses. For her to be subjected to this grave security lapse is too much,” CALD said.

It added, “The only course of action should be to set her free.”

Test case

Why does De Lima’s plight continue to call the attention of foreign governments?

As US Senator Richard Durbin had put it in January 2020, the former senator’s case served as an “important test” for democracy in the Philippines and how the government would uphold Filipinos’ rights to a fair trial and due process.

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Since she was arrested at the Senate, De Lima’s case had also come to embody the Duterte government’s efforts to stifle dissent, as well the rise of sexism in the country and a “creeping marginalization of women.”

Campaigns to smear De Lima’s character had intensified both online and in real life after she launched a probe into the spate of extrajudicial killings under former president Rodrigo Dutere. The lines of inquiry in Congressional hearings often dived into De Lima’s romantic relationship with her former security aide Ronnie Dayan, who was accused of being her bagman. Similar language, research showed, had also been used online to debase her.

Aside from this, De Lima, still a sitting senator despite the cases filed against her, had been forced to continue the rest of her term from behind bars, with her physical absence in the Senate posing limits on her mandate and right to serve.

Earlier in August, US lawmakers made sure to demonstrate their ongoing monitoring of De Lima’s case, paying her a visit during a trip to the country where they also met President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.

For European officials, De Lima’s prolonged detention was among concerns it raised with the Marcos administration weeks after the 2022 Philippine elections, listing it as an area where they hoped to see “meaningful” progress.

Human rights defenders, along with supporters of the former senator, have reiterated that her continued detention highlighted the impact of Duterte’s autocratic regime.

For most of his term, Duterte lashed out international concern for De Lima and had gone as far as to ban from the country US senators who had pushed for sanctions against De Lima’s accusers. Before leaving office in June, former justice secretary Menardo Guevarra said cases against De Lima would continue, saying there was “good reason” to continue her prosecution.

Up until De Lima’s hostage taking, the Marcos administration had so far distanced itself from the former senator’s cases with justice secretary Jesus Crispin “Boying” Remulla saying that it would let prosecutors “do their job.” The possibility of dropping charges against de Lima, he said, existed “if it’s the only recourse.

Half a decade later, newfound pressure and calls mount for De Lima’s release. “Anything less” than this, Amnesty International Philippines Director Butch Olano said, “is a perpetuation of this grave injustice against her.”

“That she has had to endure this traumatizing and frightening experience on top of being arbitrarily detained for over five years now is the height of outrage, negligence and injustice,” he said. – Rappler.com

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Sofia Tomacruz

Sofia Tomacruz covers defense and foreign affairs. Follow her on Twitter via @sofiatomacruz.