MANILA, PHILIPPINES — Jailed Philippine human rights campaigner Leila de Lima was acquitted Friday on one of two remaining drug trafficking charges filed against her under the Rodrigo Duterte administration, court officials said, putting her a step closer to freedom.
De Lima, a former senator and justice minister, has been detained since February 2017 on charges she and human rights groups say were fabricated as payback for going after Duterte and his deadly war on drugs that left thousands dead.
About 50 supporters chanted “Free Leila Now” and “Junk the Fake Evidence” as they gathered outside the heavily guarded courtroom, which was off limits to the media.
The former senator and justice minister, 63, and another defendant “are hereby acquitted of the crime charged on the ground of reasonable doubt,” said a written copy of the ruling released by regional trial court judge Abraham Alcantara.
“Glorious day,” a relieved de Lima told reporters as police escorted her back to a police coaster after the court session, describing the result as the “beginning of my vindication”.
Despite the acquittal, she will stay in jail as her trial in the other criminal case continues. She has applied for bail and is waiting for the judge’s decision.
De Lima, 63, faces life in prison if convicted of the remaining charge.
She is accused of taking money from inmates inside the country’s largest prison in exchange for allowing them to sell drugs while she was justice minister from 2010-2015 under then-leader Benigno Aquino.
But the prosecution’s case has been falling apart as two of their witnesses died and one of the three charges against her was dismissed.
Multiple witnesses have recanted their testimonies, claiming they were coerced into making allegations against de Lima.
A UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention concluded in 2018 that de Lima’s detention was “arbitrary given the absence of a legal basis” and that her right to a fair trial had not been “respected”.
Since President Ferdinand Marcos took power, there have been renewed calls from diplomats and rights defenders for de Lima to be released.
Before her arrest in 2017, de Lima had spent a decade investigating “death squad” killings allegedly orchestrated by Duterte during his time as Davao City mayor and then in the early days of his 2016-2022 presidency.
She conducted the probes while serving as the nation’s human rights commissioner, and then from 2010 to 2015 as justice secretary in the Benigno Aquino administration that preceded Duterte’s rule.
De Lima won a Senate seat in 2016, becoming one of the few opposition voices as the populist Duterte enjoyed a landslide win.
But Duterte then accused her of running a drug trafficking ring with criminals. The charges were an act of “vengeance” by Duterte to silence her and warn others not to oppose him, de Lima told AFP previously.
Campaigning from behind bars, de Lima made a failed bid for re-election to the Senate in last year’s elections.
The lawyer and mother of two has been held in a compound for high-profile detainees, rather than in one of the Philippines’ overcrowded jails.
It is not unusual for court cases to drag on for years in the creaky justice system, which is overburdened, underfunded and vulnerable to pressure from the powerful.