Philippine senator acquitted in illegal drug case

A Philippine trial court on Friday dismissed one of the two remaining drug trafficking charges against Leila M. de Lima, a former senator and one of ex-President Rodrigo R. Duterte’s staunchest critics.

Ms. de Lima, now 63, and another defendant was acquitted of the charges, according to the 39-page decision written by Mutinlupa Judge Abraham Joseph B. Alcantara, a copy of which was sent to reporters via Viber by her lawyer, Rolly Francis Peoro.

The former senator, who was arrested in 2017 and accused of taking drug money months after leading a Senate investigation into Mr. Duterte’s war on drugs, said she had no doubt from the start that she would be acquitted “based on the merits and the strength of my innocence.”

“That’s already two cases down, and one more to go,” she said in a statement. “I am of course happy that with this second acquittal in the three cases filed against me, my release from more than six years of persecution draws nearer.”

Ms. de Lima, who is imprisoned at the national police headquarters near Manila, the capital, originally faced three charges and was cleared in one case in 2021.

Amnesty International said Friday’s decision was “long overdue.”

“We urge the authorities to also quash the remaining drug case and to ensure that her application for temporary freedom in this pending case is processed speedily and fairly,” interim Deputy Regional Director for Research Montse Ferrer said in a statement.

“The authorities must not delay her release any longer and allow her to be reunited with her family, friends and supporters after six long years.”

Key state witnesses started retracting testimony against the former senator as Mr. Duterte’s six-year term in office came to an end. All of them claimed to have been coerced by his government into falsely accusing her.

Ms. de Lima had applied for bail based on those retractions, for which the court had yet to rule. Her first application for bail was denied in 2020.

She incurred Mr. Duterte’s ire when, as chairwoman of the Commission on Human Rights, she started a probe in 2009 into extrajudicial killings by the so-called Davao Death Squad in the tough-talking leader’s hometown, where he was the long-time mayor. Mr. Duterte later vowed to “destroy” her.

Mr. Duterte’s drug war is now being investigated by the International Criminal Court for possible “crimes against humanity.”

At least 6,117 suspected drug dealers had been killed in police operations, according to data released by the Philippine government in June 2021. Human rights groups estimate that as many as 30,000 suspects died. — Norman P. Aquino and John Victor D. Ordoñez