Leila de Lima free at last; her mission now is to bring Duterte and his minions to justice for falsely imprisoning her

Having been cleared of her third and final fabricated narcotics case, former senator and prominent Duterte critic – Leila de Lima – has at last regained her unconditional freedom.

The former lawmaker was perhaps the most famous political prisoner under the Duterte regime, becoming a target after challenging Rodrigo Duterte’s infamous “war on drugs”. It was De Lima who launched a Senate inquiry into the former president’s bloody crackdown on illegal drugs, which killed thousands including many who were not involved at all with the narcotics trade.

Mere months after opening the inquiry, De Lima would find herself investigated for her own alleged involvement in the drugs trade. The Duterte-controlled Department of Justice (DOJ) filed cases against her accusing her of conspiring with detained drug lords inside the country’s state prisons during her stint as justice secretary, from 2010-2015.

In February 2017, less than a year since opening her Senate inquiry into Duterte’s brutal drug war, De Lima would be arrested over the trumped-up cases filed against her and would remain in prison for the next six years.

A policewoman guards Philippine Senator Leila de Lima as she raises a sign that means “Laban” (Fight), after appearing at court on drug related charges in Muntinlupa, Metro Manila, Philippines, on February 24, 2017. (Reuters / Erik De Castro)
Former senator Leila de Lima flashes her supporters with the “Laban” (English: Fight) sign, after appearing in court on drug related charges in this file photo from February 24, 2017. (Reuters / Erik De Castro)

Despite the prominence of her case, there was very slow progress in hearing De Lima’s cases in a judiciary that was also controlled by Duterte’s allies. That changed in the dying days of the Duterte presidency, when all of a sudden the “witnesses” who provided support for the cases filed against De Lima suddenly began retracting their testimonies against her.

In 2021, De Lima was acquitted of one of 3 drug charges against her. While Duterte was still president at that point, he was approaching his last twelve months in office and a regime change was expected.

That charge related to accusations De Lima had actively promoted the drug trade in the notorious New Bilibid Prison (NBP) in Muntinlupa City, where there was a flourishing narcotics business among inmates. A court dismissed that charge in February 2021, on the basis of weak evidence.

In 2022, in the final months of the Duterte administration, key witnesses that Duterte’s Justice department lined up against De Lima slowly began recanting the testimonies they gave in support of the cases filed against the detained lawmaker. Kerwin Espinosa, a self-confessed drug trader, previously testified that he was able to continue his narcotics business inside the NBP after giving Php8 million in protection money to De Lima – who was then the justice secretary.

He would recant his affidavit in April 2022, less than a month before the May 2022 presidential election that would signal the end of Duterte’s term, saying that he had no dealings with De Lima and only testified against her after his life was threatened by the police.

Confessed drug trader Kerwin Espinosa faces trial in this Inquirer.net file photo. (Photo: Philippine Daily Inquirer/www.inquirer.net)
Confessed drug trader Kerwin Espinosa faces trial in this Inquirer.net file photo. (Photo: Philippine Daily Inquirer/www.inquirer.net)

Only a week after Espinosa’s retraction, another “star witness” – Rafael Ragosrenounced his sworn testimony pinning De Lima to the drug trade. He was the former director-general of the Bureau of Corrections (BOC) and had oversight over the country’s prisons, who testified in 2016 that he collected Php10 million in protection money from detained drug lords inside the NBP and delivered them personally to the then-justice secretary.

Like Espinosa, Ragos eventually withdrew his testimony – admitting that he was coerced into making those statements by Duterte’s justice secretary, Vitaliano Aguirre II. It was Ragos’ testimony that pushed a court judge to bring the cases against De Lima to trial which resulted in her being remanded in custody that lasted six years.

In 2023, more than a year after Duterte left office, seven more drug convicts who were also used as “witnesses” against De Lima recanted their testimonies – again stating that they were coerced to make those false statements under duress from the police.

The timing of these “star” witnesses’ retractions is no coincidence. Their only motive in testifying against De Lima was to appease Duterte who was the sitting president at the time and had control over all facets of Philippine government.

With the Philippine National Police (PNP), DOJ, and the BOC having all played a hand in orchestrating De Lima’s prosecution, it is clear that Duterte weaponized the Philippine government and its agencies to cast his revenge against a critic. As his reign of terror was about to end, and the people he appointed into positions of power were about to be replaced, the truth slowly began to creep out – vindicating De Lima.

Rodrigo Duterte talking
Former president Rodrigo Duterte made it his focus to falsely malign and detain his critic, Leila de Lima. [Photo: Bullit Marquez/AP]
Having been cleared of all charges against her, De Lima now has unconditional freedom. Though she has been out of prison since November 2023, after being allowed to post bail, it is the first time she can enjoy her freedom without the possibility of prosecution hovering over her head.

That should not be the end of her saga, however. De Lima wasted six years of her life behind bars, there was a coordinated effort to not only detain her but also to tarnish her name and reputation in the public sphere.

Her mission now should be to ensure that those who conspired to lead her to her downfall face justice. De Lima must now turn the tables on her tormentors, with the ultimate goal of bringing Rodrigo Duterte to justice for violating her human rights.

Reports have already emerged that De Lima is readying counter-charges against her prosecutors, led by former justice secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II. That should just be the start.

As vehemently as the Duterte administration targeted her, De Lima should go after them with equal vigour. After all, in Duterte’s case – unlike in De Lima’s – there is actually evidence that he committed criminal wrongdoing.


Further Reading

MAY 2023: Leila De Lima Acquitted Again: Why The Charges Against Her Are Purely Part Of Duterte’s Political Vendetta

DECEMBER 2023: With Leila De Lima Now Free, Her Focus Should Be To Bring Rodrigo Duterte To Justice