De Lima stays in jail; court junks bail plea
MANILA, Philippines — Former Sen. Leila de Lima will remain in detention after a Muntinlupa City court denied her bail petition on Wednesday, only weeks after her acquittal on the second of three drug trafficking charges filed against her during the Duterte administration.
In a 35-page resolution, Judge Romeo Buenaventura of the Muntinlupa Regional Trial Court (RTC) Branch 256 said there was “strong” evidence against De Lima and her co-accused, and “there is great probability that the crime charged has been committed.”
“[I]n finding evidence of guilt strong, the court does not in any way prejudge what the final outcome of the case will be. The culpability or innocence of the accused will still be decided on the basis of all evidence presented by the parties and only after trial on the merits,” according to the resolution.
De Lima, an outspoken critic of former President Rodrigo Duterte and his brutal campaign against illegal drugs, has been detained at the Philippine National Police Custodial Center at Camp Crame in Quezon City since February 2017.
As for De Lima’s appeal for humanitarian consideration, Buenaventura said the grounds raised by her camp were not compelling enough.
In her bail petition, the 63-year-old De Lima had invoked health issues and her being a senior citizen, but Buenaventura said the former senator was “not suffering from any serious or life-threatening health condition.”
The court also did not take into account De Lima’s ordeal in October 2022, when one of three detained militants took her hostage as they tried to escape the Camp Crame facility.
She was unharmed while the three suspected Abu Sayyaf terrorist group members were killed.
The court said the hostage incident inside the custodial facility was not “injurious to health,” or did not endanger her life but was an isolated event.
Sought for comment, Human Rights Watch senior researcher Carlos Conde said the court’s decision to deny De Lima bail was “surprising” and “scandalous.”
“Many people, including us and diplomats even, were really counting on the court to grant her bail at least as she has been in detention for six years,” he said. “This really boggles the mind.”
Conde said the denial of De Lima’s bail “doesn’t look good on the Marcos administration,” after it promised to observe rule of law, unlike its predecessor.
“The fact that most people consider the persecution of De Lima as a political move by the Duterte administration, it now behooves upon Mr. Marcos to use his political will to try to make it right for De Lima,” he said.
“We can’t say he should order the court, but he can at least explore the possibility of asking the prosecutors’ office to drop the case against De Lima,” Conde said. “There are steps that Mr. Marcos can take to give credence to his avowals of reform … this just doesn’t look good on him,” he said.
‘Shot herself on foot’
But Justice Secretary Jesus Crispin Remulla said De Lima had shot her own foot by arguing against the evidence instead of primarily citing humanitarian concerns.
“I’ve said this before that we would not object if there was a petition for bail based on humanitarian concerns because after all she’s been detained for six years. For six years she’s waited,” the justice chief told reporters.
“We wished that that would have been the reason and not the weakness or the strength of the evidence. But instead, they wanted to show off. They wanted to send a message that they can take on the case. It’s like shooting yourself in the foot,” Remulla said.
De Lima is accused of taking money from inmates inside the New Bilibid Prison (NBP) in Muntinlupa City, the country’s largest prison, in exchange for allowing them to sell drugs when she was the justice secretary from 2010 to 2015, under then President Benigno Aquino III.
She initially faced three charges.
Two cases have been dismissed, with multiple witnesses dying or recanting their testimonies, including former Bureau of Corrections (BuCor) chief Rafael Ragos, who testified in court that he was coerced into signing prepared affidavits on three occasions in 2016 and 2017 falsely accusing De Lima of receiving bribes from drug lords
On May 12, she was acquitted after a different branch of the Muntinlupa court ruled that the prosecution failed to establish her links to the illegal trade in NBP. In February 2021, another Muntinlupa court granted her petition to have the first drug case dismissed.
In her third case pending in Branch 256, De Lima stands accused of conspiring with former BuCor chief Franklin Jesus Bucayu to engage in illegal drug trading to fund her Senate run. There are three trial dates left with the next one set on June 19.
State prosecutors want to present 20 witnesses, but De Lima’s lawyers have asked the court to cross out 17 of them, as they were already presented during the trial of the case handled by Branch 204, which resulted in acquittal.
De Lima, a mother of two, faces life in prison if she is convicted on the remaining charge. Before her arrest, De Lima had spent a decade investigating “death squad” killings allegedly orchestrated by Duterte during his time as Davao City mayor and in the early days of his presidency.
She conducted inquiries while serving as the nation’s human rights commissioner, and then from 2010 to 2015 as justice secretary under the Aquino administration.
Lost reelection bid
After winning a Senate seat in the 2016 elections that also swept populist Duterte to power, De Lima became one of the few opposition voices.
Duterte then accused her of running a drug trafficking ring with criminals when she was justice secretary, forcing her from the Senate and into a jail cell.
De Lima lost her bid for reelection in May 2022 after campaigning from behind bars.
Duterte, who was constitutionally barred from seeking a second term as President, stepped down the following month.
Throughout the proceedings, De Lima has insisted the charges against her had been trumped up in retaliation for going after Duterte and his drug war that killed thousands of people.
Disappointed with the court’s decision, Bayan Muna chair Neri Colmenares said the Hague-based International Criminal Court, which is in the process of deciding whether to pursue an investigation on Duterte’s drug war, will “note this development on the issue.”