De Lima granted bail in third and last drug case

From the Newsrooms, November 13 to 17, 2023

AFTER SIX YEARS, eight months and 21 days, Leila de Lima gained freedom after posting bail of PHP 300,000. Arrested and detained in February 2017, she spent nearly seven years in solitary confinement in Camp Crame—the national police headquarters—deprived of her political and civil rights, isolated from her family and friends, and prevented from doing her duties for the rest of her term as a senator from 2017 to 2022. 

Three drug charges for conspiring to trade in illegal drugs in the New Bilibid prison during her term as justice secretary were filed against de Lima in February 2017 – charges that depended on testimonies of drug convicts serving their term. 

Prosecution and litigation proceeded slowly. But the pace began picking up in February 2021, with the court acquitting her in the first of three charges due to the prosecution’s failure to prove the alleged conspiracy. In May 2023, the court acquitted De Lima in the second case, citing the recantation of star witness Rafael Ragos, former chief of the Bureau of Corrections.

On November 13, Judge Gener Gito of Muntinlupa City Regional Trial Court Branch 206 granted her petition for bail for the last of her three cases, ruling that the prosecution was unable to establish “that the guilt of the said accused is strong.” De Lima and her co-accused —former Bureau of Corrections director Franklin Bucayu, her former aides Ronnie Dayan and Joenel Sanchez, and alleged bagman Jose Adrian Dera—were ordered to pay bail of PHP 300,000 each.

News of the court’s decision broke past 3 pm of November 13. It was the lead story on primetime newscasts on free TV. The following day, it ran as the banner story of six Manila-based broadsheets. Media captured videos of the emotional de Lima. Footage showed her being trailed by media as she was escorted from the court to the Philippine National Police headquarters, where spokesperson Col. Jean Fajardo told the media that de Lima would have to undergo physical and medical examinations while waiting for her release order.

Rappler’s Lian Buan reported that de Lima stepped out of Camp Crame a free woman at 7:04 pm. 

De Lima and her legal team were prepared for the moment as shortly after her release, she gave a press briefing, parts of which some newscasts (TV Patrol, 24 Oras and Frontline Pilipinas) carried live. She talked about her struggle to keep up her faith and hope while in detention. De Lima said she and her team needed to discuss whether counter-complaints against her persecutors would be filed. Her message to former President Rodrigo Duterte who, while in office, had threatened De Lima for investigating drug-related killings: “God forgive him and God bless him.”

News coverage did not let go of the story, reporting de Lima’s trip to the shrine of Our Lady of Manaoag on November 14 to give thanks and her return to her hometown Iriga City on November 15 to see her 91-year-old mother. Media noted that the first thing she did was tear down the “Free Leila Now” posters at the gate of her family home. 

The local government was also prepared for her return, with some officials telling the media about their efforts to coordinate with police to handle the heavy traffic because of her homecoming, as well as the security for the former senator. In her residence, she told reporters that she was ready to cooperate with the International Criminal Court and their investigation into the crimes committed by the state during “the war on drugs.” The Philippine Daily Inquirer noted that while her lawyers said this was an option, she would also devote time to “rebuilding her life” and making up for all the personal time that she lost while in jail.

Allies, Foes React

The international community welcomed De Lima’s release, with ambassadors from the United Kingdom, the European Union, France, Australia, Canada and the United States issuing separate statements. International human rights organizations Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch called for the immediate resolution of De Lima’s last drug case, with Amnesty stressing the Marcos administration’s responsibility to ensure the former senator’s safety while out on bail.

On the other side, Duterte’s allies, former Cabinet members Salvador Panelo, Vitaliano Aguirre II and Harry Roque raised questions about Judge Gito’s ruling, including the timing of the decision and the weight that the court put on the recantation of witnesses. De Lima noted that Judge Gito did not cite the latter as reason for his decision. For his part, Justice Secretary Jesus Crispin Remulla said it is likely that De Lima will be cleared of charges, as granting bail for drug cases indicates that the that prosecution did not present enough evidence of guilt. 

Asked about De Lima’s readiness to work with the ICC, Solicitor General Menardo Guevarra said De Lima is a private citizen and therefore can assist in the ICC probe, but reiterated that the Marcos government maintains its non-cooperation.

H. Marcos Mordeno, editor at MindaNews, noted in his opinion piece that Panelo, in an SMNI interview last November 14, described de Lima’s incarceration as “karma:” “Yung almost seven years na detention niya sa nagawa niyang kasalanan, number 1, yung paninira niya kay President Duterte (Her nearly seven years of detention for her sins, number one, her destroying President Duterte.)” Mordeno argued that Panelo’s words just proved that the charges were never about drugs but rather an admission that Duterte was using the courts for political vendetta. 

De Lima said it herself in a CNN Philippines interview on November 14: “There’s got to be a day of reckoning, although I’m not yet focused on that at this point.” Media must sustain close coverage of de Lima’s case as its resolution begins the long struggle to achieve justice for the victims of Duterte’s bloody drug war.

More from the media:Newsrooms followed three developments driving what looks like a losing streak for the Dutertes. The power shift in Congress started the exodus of members of the former president’s party, PDP-Laban, to Lakas-CMD. A second petition is asking the Supreme Court to direct the Office of the Vice President to account for the spending of its 2022 confidential funds. The grave threat complaint filed by ACT Party-list Representative France Castro moved forward with a subpoena issued by the Quezon City Prosecutor’s Office, directing Rodrigo Duterte to appear before the court and file a counter-affidavit. After Castro raised questions about the allocation, Duterte accused Castro on live television of being a communist and threatened to kill her.

Media picked up the exchange. Responding to the subpoena, the older Duterte remarked that he might as well go to prison, what with Castro “oppressing” him. Castro said this reaction indicates that Duterte does not respect the justice system, emphasizing that she and her legal team are taking the complaint seriously.