1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Philippines: Duterte critic de Lima acquitted in drug case

Ana P. Santos
May 15, 2023

Rights activists have welcomed the acquittal of former Philippine Justice Minister Leila de Lima in a drug case. She was arrested months after launching an investigation into Rodrigo Duterte's "war on drugs."

Former Philippine senator and human rights campaigner Leila de Lima (center) reacts as she leaves a court in Muntinlupa city, suburban Manila on May 12, 2023.
Leila de Lima was widely considered Duterte's 'biggest nemesis'Image: Ted Aljibe/AFP/Getty Images

A Philippine court in Manila has acquitted Leila de Lima of drug charges, marking the second acquittal in three cases filed against the former senator and justice minister by the administration of ex-President Rodrigo Duterte. 

A vocal critic of Duterte, de Lima has been in police detention since 2017. She was arrested shortly after she launched a Senate investigation into the government's "war on drugs" that led to the deaths of over 12,000 Filipinos, mostly poor and urban young men.

"The courtroom erupted in applause. Then Ms. de Lima broke out in tears. It was the first time I saw her cry. This was really an ordeal for her," Rolly Peoro, de Lima's the legal counsel, told DW after the acquittal on May 13.

Finding evidence of Duterte's war on drugs

Key prosecution witnesses began retracting their statements against de Lima last year, saying they had been coerced by the police and former Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre into giving false testimony.

Former high-ranking government officials such as Conchita Carpio-Morales, who served as justice for the Supreme Court, and foreign embassy officials were among those present in the closed court to witness the verdict.

De Lima's petition for bail for a third drug charge is being tried before a separate court and is still under consideration. 

'Little to celebrate'

In January, the International Criminal Court in The Hague authorized the resumption of the investigation into alleged crimes and extrajudicial killings during the Duterte-era "war" on illegal narcotics.

Duterte, who ended his presidency in 2022, and key police officials are among those named in the ICC investigation.

According to government data, 6,252 people were killed during anti-drug operations carried out by law enforcement agencies from 2016 to 2022. The government stopped releasing statistics after Ferdinand Marcos Jr. became president in 2022, but human rights organizations estimate the actual number of victims is much higher.

The latest global Atlas index, which measures abuse of power enabled by a lack of accountability, ranked the Philippines 51st out of 163 countries. Global risk firm Eurasia Group, which published the report, ranked the Philippines lowest when it comes to the abuse of human rights.

In the wake of de Lima's acquittal, the president's executive secretary, Lucas Bersamin, said that the country's justice system was working.

Carlos Conde, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch, slammed the statement as "specious and self-serving."

"The acquittal is just a small part of the story — the larger story here is how the government, particularly the Justice Department, was complicit in her persecution to begin with," Conde told DW.

"Unless there is accountability for the thousands more human rights abuses carried out against mostly poor Filipinos in ways that are much worse than what happened to de Lima, there's little to celebrate even if we are happy that she is closer to freedom," Conde said. 

Sexism as political prosecution

In the lead-up to de Lima's arrest in 2017, Duterte unleashed a verbal tirade and called her names in televised speeches. Duterte's political allies also exposed details of de Lima's personal life and intimate relations during hearings.

After her home address and cellphone number were read out during a livestreamed hearing, de Lima was forced to leave her home fearing her safety.

"A president using his power to unjustly detain a senator for years normalizes misogyny," Nathalie Africa-Verceles, a professor at the Department of Women and Development Studies at the University of the Philippines, told DW.

De Lima was Duterte's 'biggest nemesis'

Some advocates see the acquittal as a partial redemption for gender rights.

"Duterte wanted to control, suppress all critics and to him, his biggest nemesis was de Lima," said Socorro Reyes, a gender rights activist who is part of #EveryWoman, a coalition of advocacy groups that have banded together to protest the government's sexist attacks on de Lima.

Philippine cafe keeps alive memory of 'drug war' victims

Teresita Deles, a former presidential adviser on the peace process and a close friend of de Lima's, described the acquittal as bittersweet. 

"I can't help but think of all those years she lost. The years the country lost when she was silenced for her dissent. We needed her so badly as an opposition leader in government during those years," Deles told DW.

"She knew she would not see justice while Duterte was president. Now, we can start seeing the beginning of a redemptive arc for her," she added.

Deles, who regularly visits de Lima, said that she is hopeful her friend's pending bail petition will be granted. 

"Then when I will visit her the last time, we will walk out of police detention together," she said.

Edited by: Sou-Jie van Brunnersum

Skip next section Explore more