MANILA - A senator who is a vocal critic of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s brutal drug war was arrested on Friday morning (Feb 24) on charges that she coddled drug gangs inside the national penitentiary when she headed the Department of Justice.
"It's my honour to be jailed for the principles I am fighting for… The truth will come out, and I will achieve justice. I am innocent,” Senator Leila de Lima, 57, told reporters just before she turned herself over to a team of law enforcers sent to arrest her.
A warrant for her arrest was issued on Thursday on charges that she solicited and received at least 10 million pesos (S$280,000) from jailed drug dealers. The alleged conduit for the money was her former driver, Mr Ronnie Dayan, who was arrested on Thursday.
Ms De Lima has moved to have the charges dropped entirely, claiming “plain and simple persecution”.
Her arrest has provoked strong reactions from her critics and supporters.
Mr Duterte’s legal counsel Salvador Panelo said “karma has finally caught up with her”, citing her role, as former president Benigno Aquino’s justice secretary, in the arrest of former president Gloria Arroyo in 2011.
Presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella said her arrest “demonstrates the president’s strong resolve to fight pushers, peddlers, and their protectors”.
Vice-President Leni Robredo, however, said Ms De Lima’s arrest “is the latest move in a persistent campaign of political harassment being waged against a duly elected member of Congress”.
“These efforts to smear Senator De Lima are a strong indication that the charges against her arise from a political agenda, and are not the result of an independent, unbiased, legal process,” she said.
Ms Robredo and Ms De Lima both belong to the Liberal Party.
In a statement, the National Union of People's Lawyers said the government is demonstrating how it can use its “coercive powers” to go after “perceived political enemies even for petty grounds".
Ms De Lima is perhaps the loudest voice in Congress opposing Mr Duterte’s anti-narcotics drive.
As head of the human rights commission, she investigated in 2009 over 1,000 killings allegedly perpetrated by so-called death squads said to be under the protection of Mr Duterte when he ruled the southern city of Davao either as mayor, or vice-mayor from 1986.
She then led a Senate inquiry into the killing of more than 7,000 by police and state-sponsored militias since Mr Duterte took office in June and began an expansive crackdown on drug dealers.
As a presiding senator on a panel investigating the killings, she presented a witness who claimed to have been a contract killer for Mr Duterte.
The senator was almost immediately demoted from the panel. In swift succession, salacious claims emerged about her sex life, along with allegations that she had taken bribes from drug dealers.
Mr Duterte has tagged her as a “drug queen” and an “immoral woman”, for her affair with her former driver, Mr Dayan. He even went so far as to suggest that she committed suicide.
Her arrest also comes as the Senate prepares to hear testimonies of a retired police officer, who corroborated much of the claims made by a self-confessed hitman who tagged Mr Duterte in at least three murders linked to death squads.
Former policeman Arthur Lascanas alleged that Mr Duterte gave between 20,000 pesos to one million pesos in pay-offs to the death squads he purportedly tasked to hunt down criminals when he was Davao mayor.
The court is scheduled to hear Ms De Lima’s plea to dismiss the charges filed against her on March 10.
Meanwhile, she will be detained inside the same compound as two other senators she sent to jail on plunder charges when she was justice secretary.