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Jailed Philippine rights campaigner granted bail

MANILA (AFP) Jailed Philippine human rights campaigner Leila de Lima has been granted bail, her lawyer said Monday, putting her a step closer to freedom after nearly seven years behind bars.

De Lima, one of the most outspoken critics of former president Rodrigo Duterte and his deadly anti-drug war, was jailed on narcotics-related charges she says were fabricated to silence her.

“Bail granted,” lawyer Filibon Tacardon said in a message sent to reporters.

Outside the court, Tacardon said: “We’re ecstatic, happy. Ma’am (de Lima) cried.”

“We expected the bail solely because of the merits of the case. We believe that she’s innocent — we all believe that she’s innocent and all these charges are trumped up.”

De Lima was in court when the bail decision was announced. It was not immediately clear when she would walk free.

Former Philippine senator and human rights campaigner Leila de Lima (C) speaks to members of the media after attending a court hearing in Muntinlupa, suburban Manila, on November 13, 2023. PHOTO: AFP

Human Rights Watch welcomed the bail decision.

“She never should have been unjustly prosecuted and detained by former President Rodrigo Duterte,” deputy Asia director Bryony Lau said in a statement.

Lau said Duterte’s administration “concocted evidence and used the machinery of an abusive state to punish her for performing her duties as a senator and speaking out against the ‘war on drugs’.”

Probed ‘death squad’ killings 
De Lima, 64, is accused of taking money from inmates inside the largest prison in the Philippines to allow them to sell drugs while she was justice minister from 2010 to 2015.

Multiple witnesses, including prison gang bosses, died or recanted their testimonies, resulting in the dismissal of two of the three charges against de Lima.

Since President Ferdinand Marcos came into office last June there have been renewed calls from human rights groups, foreign diplomats and politicians for de Lima’s release.

While in jail she has suffered various health problems, including a pelvic organ prolapse that required surgery.

In October 2022, she was briefly taken hostage during an attempted breakout by three detained militants.

Before her arrest on February 24, 2017, 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 the probes while serving as the nation’s human rights commissioner, and then from 2010 to 2015 as justice minister in the Aquino administration that preceded Duterte’s rule.

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 re-election 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.

The lawyer and mother of two has been held in a compound for high-profile detainees, rather than one of the Philippines’ notoriously overcrowded jails.