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In Philippines, Calls Grow for Duterte’s Jailed Star Critic to Be Freed After Witness Recants

FILE - A life-size cardboard cutout of Sen. Leila de Lima, center, is seen on a stage in Manila, Philippines, March 2, 2022. De Lima, a top critic of outgoing President Rodrigo Duterte, has been locked up for more than five years in a high-security prison in the capital.

New demands to free Philippine opposition Senator Leila de Lima, a staunch critic of President Rodrigo Duterte, escalated after the government’s star witness recanted his statements, saying the police pressured him to lie.

De Lima has been languishing in jail for five years over what human rights groups believe to be fabricated charges meant to silence her after she launched an investigation into Duterte’s war on drugs in 2016. She is seeking reelection from a custodial center of the Philippine police.

In 2014, De Lima was the late President Benigno Aquino III’s justice secretary when she led a crackdown that exposed the luxurious lifestyle of convicted drug lords in the country’s most-secure prison.

But the narrative flipped when De Lima caught the ire of Duterte for investigating his war on drugs and his involvement in the extrajudicial killings in Davao City, his hometown. Before becoming president, Duterte served as mayor of Davao City for decades.

Self-confessed drug lord Kerwin Espinosa, who was arrested in Abu Dhabi in 2016, has alleged he paid De Lima drug money and contributed to her senatorial campaign in 2016.

But five years later, Espinosa apologized to De Lima in a court document made public Thursday. He said he had no choice but to “invent stories” as he was coerced by the police.

“[A]ny and all of his statements given during the Senate hearings, or in the form of sworn written affidavits, against Senator Leila De Lima are not true. He has no dealings with Sen. De Lima and has not given her any money at any given time,” a counter-affidavit signed by Espinosa read.

“Any statement he made against the Senator are [sic] false and was the result only of pressure, coercion, intimidation, and serious threats to his life and family members from the police who instructed him to implicate the Senator into the illegal drug trade,” it added.

De Lima said she has forgiven those who were used by the government to pin her down, and she urged others to follow Espinosa’s example.

“I am urging everyone who took part in the cruelty against me to follow suit and reveal all they know. The truth is coming out. Justice is getting close. My wish: To make those behind this accountable,” she said in a dispatch Friday from her detention cell.

Brazen injustice

Her supporters said the recantation highlights the grave injustice suffered by De Lima under Duterte. They are drumming up calls from local and international rights organizations to release the jailed senator.

Antonio La Viña, a constitutional law professor and legal adviser to De Lima, said the recent development was good for De Lima, as she could be released in a matter of time, but he was sad for the country’s justice system.

FILE - Philippine Senator Leila de Lima, second from left in foreground, is escorted out of the Philippine Senate premises following a news conference, Feb. 21, 2017, in suburban Pasay city, south of Manila, after the Philippine justice secretary filed charges against her.
FILE - Philippine Senator Leila de Lima, second from left in foreground, is escorted out of the Philippine Senate premises following a news conference, Feb. 21, 2017, in suburban Pasay city, south of Manila, after the Philippine justice secretary filed charges against her.

“We should learn a lesson from this. Don't use politics. Don't use the law. Don't weaponize the law for political reasons. Why is De Lima in prison, detained? Because President Duterte got mad at her for investigating the war against drugs,” La Viña told VOA.

He said De Lima could have done Duterte a favor if the Senate hearings on the war on drugs continued. Duterte faces a “crimes against humanity” complaint before the International Criminal Court for thousands of Filipinos killed in a crackdown that he allegedly sanctioned.

Free De Lima

Despite the recantation, which critics said proved Duterte’s vindictiveness, his office maintains it won’t affect the pending charges against De Lima.

“While Kerwin Espinosa appears to have recanted his allegations against Senator Leila de Lima, his recantation will not have any effect on the pending criminal cases against the lady senator,” Martin Andanar, acting spokesperson for Duterte, said.

De Lima is still facing two drug charges after she won one of the cases in February last year.

Butch Olano, Philippine director of Amnesty International, said De Lima is a victim of political persecution.

“Following this retraction, the government must immediately and unconditionally release her and hold accountable those responsible for her unjust detention and the various human rights violations she has had to endure,” Olano said in a statement.

The ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR), a group of Southeast Asian lawmakers who advance human rights and democracy, has launched a social media campaign urging Philippine presidential candidates “to immediately and unconditionally drop all the trumped-up charges against Senator De Lima.”

“There cannot be any doubt of Senator De Lima’s innocence, as well as her commitment to democracy and human rights. Releasing her should be one of the first priorities of the next president if they want to restore a modicum of justice and rule of law in the government of the country,” Charles Santiago, a member of APHR said.

Candidates in the upcoming national elections are echoing calls to release De Lima. They include presidential candidate Ka Leody de Guzman, vice presidential candidate and Senator Francis Pangilinan, human rights lawyer and senatorial candidate Chel Diokno, and Senator Risa Hontiveros, who is seeking a reelection.

Presidential candidate and Vice President Leni Robredo, who picked De Lima in her senatorial slate, has previously called for her release.


Despite being incarcerated, De Lima has exercised her duties as a legislator. She has authored bills and resolutions from her detention cell in Manila, though she has been prevented from conducting live hearings.

De Lima has consistently voiced opposition against Duterte through regular dispatches from her cell.

In next month’s election, she is seeking reelection and has largely campaigned through pre-recorded video campaign messages played at Vice President Leni Robredo’s rallies, as a life-size printed standee is placed by her staff on stage.

“I think it will bolster her chances, seeing just in the last couple of days they've realized how bad, how terrible the injustice has been done,” La Viña said, adding that De Lima is one of the best lawyers in the country.

Opinion polls do not indicate De Lima will win reelection.