Human Rights Watch has issued an urgent statement calling on Philippine authorities to drop "politically motivated" charges against one of the country's only lawmakers openly critical of President Rodrigo Duterte's blood-drenched "war on drugs," which has claimed more than 7,000 lives since he took office last June. Sen. Leila de Lima, a former secretary of justice, was arrested Feb. 24 on drug-trafficking charges.
Philippine Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II on Feb. 17 anounced that charges had been filed against de Lima, her driver and several unnamed individuals for alleged violations of the Dangerous Drugs Act. If convicted, de Lima faces from 12 years to life in prison. Under the Philippine Constitution, legislators only enjoy immunity for crimes punishable by fewer than six years' imprisonment.
"The prosecution of Senator Leila de Lima is an act of political vindictiveness that debases the rule of law in the Philippines," said Phelim Kine of HRW's Asia desk. "The Duterte administration seems intent on using the courts to punish prominent critics of its murderous 'war on drugs.'"
The charges are based on testimony by several detainees at Manila's New Bilibid Prison, who claim that de Lima took money from "drug lords" while she was justice secretary under former President Benigno Aquino III. A leaked Justice Department memo indicated that Aguirre had personally authorized "perks" for those inmates, including "use of electronic gadgets, smart television sets, air-conditioning units, internet, [and] cellular phones"—an apparent reward for their testimony. Aguirre denied knowing anything about the memo, and also that the de Lima prosecution is politically motivated. "This is not the product of politics," he stated. "This is the product of drug trading."
De Lima's investigations into the charges of grave rights abuses against Duterte date to 2012. That year, as chair of the official Commission on Human Rights, she launched an inquiry of Duterte's alleged ties to the operations of the "Davao Death Squad" during his two-decade tenure as mayor of Davao City on the southern island of Mindanao. That inquiry resulted in an official recommendation that the Office of the Ombudsman investigate Duterte's "possible administrative and criminal liability" in connection to the Davao killings. The ombudsman has yet to follow through. But last August, de Lima convened hearings of the Senate Committee on Justice and Human Rights, which she chaired, into the killings of thousands of suspected drug users and dealers after Duterte took office June 30.
The hearings exposed de Lima to a campaign of harassment and intimidation from Duterte and other officials. Days after the hearings began, Duterte launched the first of a series of attacks on de Lima's personal integrity, claiming she was having an affair with her married driver. Duterte subsequently claimed to possess several "sex tapes" of de Lima with her driver, and publicly referred to her as an "X-rated actress."
That same month, Duterte told a crowd of supporters that de Lima should commit suicide. Said the president: "If I were de Lima, ladies and gentlemen, I'll hang myself." Since then, he's repeatedly vowed that she will "rot in jial."