THE ACQUITTAL of Leila de Lima on May 12 was met with public approval, promptly expressed by Filipinos coming from such diverse backgrounds as to mirror the public mood as well as the current state of Philippine politics. It would be foolish for the government not to listen to what they have to say.
The 39-page decision said that government evidence proved the existence of the drug trade inside the New Bilibid Prison. But charges that De Lima was involved crumbled when Rafael Ragos, the state's erstwhile star witness, recanted his testimony on April 30, 2022. De Lima has now been in detention for more than six years. She won the first acquittal of one of three cases in 2021.
The latest development supports the popular belief that the former Senator has been a victim of political vendetta and injustice. Hers was a critical voice, as Chair of the Commission on Human Rights (CHR), she went to Davao City to investigate the killings by "death squads" when Rodrigo Duterte was Mayor. De Lima continued to probe the killings of drug suspects in the course of the "war on drugs" launched by Duterte when he became President in 2016.
The ruling coalition in Congress held hearings in August 2016 to investigate allegations about De Lima's involvement in the drug trade in the New Bilibid Prison during her term as Secretary of Justice. Convicted drug dealers were called out of prison to testify against her. As a sitting member of the Senate then, she was the subject of a probe, unprecedented in its display of insult and misogyny.
Senator De Lima voluntarily surrendered to the PNP in Camp Crame on February 24, 2017, knowing her scheduled arrest. Accused of economic plunder, a non-bailable crime, the government filed three drug charges for allegedly "collecting drug money" amounting to PHP 10 million in the first case, PHP 70 million in the second, and PHP 30 million in the third.
The charges and her six year detention have been described by international and Philippine legal experts as "weaponization of law" or "lawfare" - meaning dubious in its legality. Early this year, key witnesses in the prosecution's case against De Lima came forward to retract their testimonies.
Celebration, challenge, and condemnation
Members of the clergy and religious orders, women leaders, representatives of human rights groups and lawmakers were one in the mood of celebration, although the messages carried the undertone of "better late than never." Some statements directly challenged the Marcos administration to distance itself from further delay of justice.
Several church leaders under the group 'One Faith. One Nation. One Voice.' "rejoiced" over the acquittal; but described her detention as stemming from "misogyny and demagoguery." Inquirer.net and Manila Bulletin quoted that "such underhanded and despicable machinations have no place in a democratic society." This was echoed by women's rights groups EveryWoman and Purple Action for Indigenous Women's Rights (LILAK).
Human rights groups Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch (HRW), and Karapatan also issued statements on the acquittal which were reported by Rappler, Inquirer.net, Manila Bulletin, Manila Times, Bulatlat, ANC's Dateline Philippines, and Philstar.com.
Secretary-General Cristina Palabay of Karapatan linked De Lima's acquittal to other cases and called for the release of many more political prisoners "like her who have been persecuted because of their work and beliefs on human rights and social justice."
Amnesty International (AI) and Human Rights Watch (HRW) pointed out that the Marcos administration must work towards holding accountable those responsible for her arbitrary and excessively long detention.
They also saw the acquittal as an "opportunity" for the current administration and Justice Department to regain credibility.
Apart from supporters, former government officials, experts, and academics waited for the decision outside the court on the day; including former senatorial candidate, lawyer and human rights defender Jose "Chel" Diokno who said that he was "optimistic" for her release. Others present were lawyer and former dean of the Ateneo School of Government Antonio La Vina, former Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales, former Commission on Higher Education Chair Patricia Licuanan, former Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process Teresita Quintos Deles, and governance expert Socorro Reyes.
After the acquittal, Inquirer quoted two US Senators, Sen. Dick Durbin and Sen. Edward Markey, who congratulated De Lima for her "long overdue" acquittal from the "always bogus charges." Diplomats such as Canadian Ambassador David Hartman and German Ambassador Anke Reiffenstuel were also cited in the same news report who both said they will "continue to follow the remaining case."
A few Senators cheered De Lima's acquittal. "Though the course is long, justice is finally prevailing," opposition Senator Risa Hontiveros said. "The false narrative and web of lies that led to her imprisonment is finally being undone. The real crime has always been her arrest. She is owed a speedy acquittal from the final false charge against her after enduring so much for 6 long years," the lawmaker added.
Senate Minority Leader Sen. Aquilino "Koko" Pimentel III hailed the court's decision while Sen. Richard Gordon called for a speedy trial, saying "the slow pace of the proceedings against de Lima is a violation of her Constitutional right."
Manila Bulletin and Manila Times also noted how netizens praised the decision, with the hashtag #FreeLeilaNow used as a reminder to the government. AlterMidya held person on the street (POS) interviews to directly hear what citizens had to say.
Official views brief and calculated
Secretary of Justice Jesus Crispin "Boying" Remulla and Executive Secretary Lucas Bersamin, a former Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, were quick to claim that the case showed that the justice system is working.
Remulla said that the court ruling was "nice" and it showed that "the rule of law has prevailed." However, he added that an acquittal of a person accused of wrongdoing "does not mean there's absolutely no guilt."
Meanwhile, Bersamin said "Wala akong masasabi kundi purihin natin ang judge. (I cannot say anything except praises for the judge.) At si (And) Senator De Lima, that's another victory. That's all. Ayoko naman mag-congratulate. (I don't want to congratulate.) That's the justice system working."
Tita Valderama, in her commentary posted by VERA Files, correctly pointed out that "those were calculated statements which the Justice secretary could use to assert the government's position that the ICC should stay away from investigating the alleged crimes against humanity committed in the Duterte administration."
Media coverage followed the story back to Duterte in Davao City. The former President said: "the judgment of the court should be accepted. Frankly, I'm not interested in the outcome of the case as I have nothing to do with it."
Unfortunately, media did not gather a range of views to question his dis-interest. Reports went to de Lima's supporters to counter his claim that he as President did not interfere.
Journalists must bear in mind that news must also involve the public. The people deserve to be heard, to be in the news. They need to see themselves; hear their thoughts expressed by others like them. Media should continue to highlight the people's voices about current and crucial issues, and make people part of the news.