Leila de Lima

Groups on De Lima acquittal: Time for Marcos gov’t to run after rights abusers

Jodesz Gavilan

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Groups on De Lima acquittal: Time for Marcos gov’t to run after rights abusers

THANKSGIVING. Former senator Leila de Lima attends a thanksgiving Mass at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish in Quezon City on February 24, 2024, marking the seventh anniversary of her arrest and incarceration in Camp Crame.

Jire Carreon/Rappler

'We call on the government to take concrete steps to ensure accountability for past injustices and strengthen protections for human rights defenders,' the Human Rights and People Empowerment Center says

MANILA, Philippines – Groups urged President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. to ensure accountability and justice for victims of abuse following the culmination of former senator Leila de Lima’s seven-year legal battle.

De Lima on Monday, June 24, received “unmitigated freedom” after Muntinlupa City Regional Trial Court Branch 206 cleared her of her third and last drug charge. It is the same court that gave her temporary freedom after granting her bail in November 2023.

This is the final hurdle in De Lima’s long battle that started when she was first arrested in February 2017 under the administration of Rodrigo Duterte.

The Human Rights and People Empowerment Center (HRPEC), where De Lima serves as chairperson emeritus, said it will “be unrelenting in demanding accountability for those in authority responsible for her persecution.”

“We call on the government to take concrete steps to ensure accountability for past injustices and strengthen protections for human rights defenders and to create an environment where dissent is respected and valued,” HRPEC said in a statement.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) called the development “sweet vindication” for De Lima, and urged the Marcos administration to show to the international community its commitment in addressing the continued absence of accountability. 

“His administration should cooperate with the investigation by the ICC (International Criminal Court) into alleged crimes against humanity [by] Duterte,” HRW senior researcher Carlos Conde said.

“He should work to achieve meaningful progress in the investigation and prosecution of extrajudicial killings that happened under Duterte – killings that, unfortunately, are still happening under his watch.”

Amnesty International (AI) lauded the decision but emphasized that “every day she spent in jail until her temporary release…was gross injustice.”

In a statement, AI deputy regional director for research Montse Ferrer challenged the Marcos government to “impartially and effectively” investigate those responsible for De Lima’s ordeal.

“As De Lima fully regains her freedom, we urge the administration of President Marcos to work towards ensuring an enabling environment for her and for many other human rights defenders in the Philippines who continue to be targeted because of their critical work,” Ferrer said.

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TIMELINE: Leila de Lima in detention

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Akbayan hailed the decision as a “triumph for justice and the culmination of years of tireless struggle,” adding that De Lima’s acquittal “unequivocally reaffirms the true essense of democratic opposition.”

“True opposition has consistently defended democracy despite facing ridicule and persecution,” the group said in a statement. “It is not a superficial label for self-rebranding by political dynasts in the middle of elite infighting, but a steadfast commitment to challenging abuses of authority, regardless of the consequences.”

De Lima is considered one of Duterte’s fiercest critics, dating back to her years as chairperson of the Commission on Human Rights. In 2009, De Lima initiated an investigation into the widespread killings allegedly perpetrated by the so-called Davao Death Squad, even questioning then-Davao City mayor Duterte during a public inquiry into the matter.

As an elected Philippine senator, she condemned the high number of killings under Duterte’s nationwide drug war, further drawing his ire. De Lima was then subjected to misogynistic congressional hearings on her alleged involvement in the drug trade, leading to her arrest and seven years in detention.

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De Lima: My priority is assist ICC, help get justice for Duterte’s drug war victims

De Lima: My priority is assist ICC, help get justice for Duterte’s drug war victims

At least 6,252 people were killed during anti-drug police operations from July 2016 to May 2022. The death toll is estimated to be much higher – between 27,000 and 30,000 – if victims of extrajudicial killings are included, according to human rights groups.

De Lima previously said in a November 2023 interview that she will prioritize fighting for drug war victims, including cooperating with the ICC, but “intends to pursue this simultaneously” with running after Duterte for sending her to jail.

In an interview following the court decision on Monday, De Lima warned that the day of reckoning for Duterte has come.

Ito po ang message ko sa dating pangulo, kay Ginoong Duterte: Kayo ngayon ang mananagot sa mga kasalanan ‘nyo sa taumbayan,” she said. “Isa lang po akong biktima. Libo-libong mga Pilipino ang pinaslang nila noong nakaraang madugo at pekeng war on drugs.”

(This is my message to the former president, Mr. Duterte: You will pay for your sins to the Filipino people. I am just one victim. You killed thousands of other Filipinos under your violent and fake drug war.) – Rappler.com

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Jodesz Gavilan

Jodesz Gavilan is a writer and researcher for Rappler and its investigative arm, Newsbreak. She covers human rights and impunity beats, producing in-depth and investigative reports particularly on the quest for justice of victims of former president Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs and war on dissent.