With Leila de Lima now free, her focus should be to bring Rodrigo Duterte to justice

After six years, Leila de Lima – a fierce critic of former President Rodrigo Duterte and his infamous “war on drugs” – walked out of her prison cell last month after being granted bail.

The former senator has been held in custody since February 2017, mere months after launching a Senate inquiry into then-President Duterte’s brutal “war on drugs”. She was slapped with a raft of narcotics-related charges, with the Duterte administration at that time accusing her of taking protection money from detained drug lords – allegedly to finance her senatorial campaign.

Photo of Leila de Lima arrested
Former Senator Leila de Lima waves to the press during her arrest in 2017. [Photo: Erik de Castro/Reuters]
De Lima’s detention was widely seen by the international community as a case of political persecution, an obvious retaliation by the Duterte administration for speaking out against its narcotics crackdown which became rife with human rights abuses and police corruption.

The angle only became obvious as the prosecution relied on the testimony of convicted drug lords to build their case against De Lima, testimonies that would slowly be recanted as President Duterte finished his term in office. First convicted drug trafficker Kerwin Espinosa in April 2022, and then former Bureau of Corrections (BuCor) chief Rafael Ragos, in November that year.

Both men were presented as star witnesses in the Duterte government’s case against the oppositionist senator, but in the dying days of President Duterte’s term the two admitted they were coerced to make such statements after threats were made against their lives.

With the prosecution losing two star witnesses, De Lima saw charges against her being dropped. In August 2022, the Ombudsman junked bribery complaints against her, and in May this year De Lima was acquitted in a second drug-related case against her.

Former President Rodrigo Duterte made demonising Leila de Lima, one of his fiercest critics, his number one priority in the early months of his presidency. (Photo: Ted Aljibe/AFP PHOTO)
Former President Rodrigo Duterte made demonising Leila de Lima, one of his fiercest critics, his number one priority in the early months of his presidency. (Photo: Ted Aljibe/AFP PHOTO)

Slowly but surely, De Lima is finding herself exonerated from the accusations leveled against her by the Duterte regime. She has one last case pending before the courts, and it is looking likely she will be acquitted of that as well.

However, even with a clean slate De Lima has suffered irreparable damage done to her name and reputation by President Duterte and his cohorts. Even worse, the past six years that she spent in prison can also never be compensated – the missed moments with her family; the psychological and physical stress it gave her; and the lost opportunity to serve as a senator, having only been elected to the role for eight months before she was detained in February 2017.

Even after De Lima is cleared of all charges, her crusade for justice should continue. She should lobby to hold the people who maligned her accountable, including Rodrigo Duterte himself.

There should be a thorough investigation to ascertain the admission of Espinosa and Ragos that they had been coerced to falsify evidence. Duterte’s former justice secretary, Vitaliano Aguirre II, should also be in the firing line as it is alleged that he was the one who coerced Ragos to fabricate his testimony against De Lima.

It is evident that the Philippine justice system was weaponised against De Lima, simply because she chose to speak out against the government of the day. Such an admission is disgraceful, and it would be even more despicable if it is allowed to happen again.


President Bongbong Marcos, to his credit, has ensured that De Lima was given due process under his administration despite having Sara Duterte, the former President’s daughter, as his running-mate and current Vice President.

If he wants to solidify his claim to being a fair adjudicator, Marcos must now establish an inquiry into the obvious political persecution of Leila de Lima – and hold those who abused the judicial system to account.

As a world-renowned human rights advocate, De Lima should also spearhead the prosecution of Rodrigo Duterte and his enforcers at the International Criminal Court (ICC) for their crimes against humanity. She is arguably the most prominent political prisoner under the Duterte regime, and she can use her profile to cast a spotlight on the regime’s crimes to the rest of the world.

Regaining her liberty, De Lima has more freedom to go after Rodrigo Duterte and his government officials who corroborated to sabotage her – not to exact revenge, but to ensure the Philippine justice system will never be bastardized in the same way again.