Top Duterte critic Leila de Lima survives hostage-taking in jail, 3 inmates dead

Jailed Philippine human rights campaigner Leila de Lima (left) speaking with Senator Risa Hontiveros (right) after being taken hostage, which she called a "near-death experience". PHOTO: AFP

MANILA - Former Philippine senator Leila de Lima, a staunch critic jailed by former president Rodrigo Duterte over what she insists are trumped-up drug charges, was taken hostage and rescued in an attempted prison break by detained militants on Sunday. 

Her spokesman said she is “safe and unhurt” after one of her co-detainees, Feliciano Sulayao Jr, took her hostage inside the Philippine National Police (PNP) Custodial Centre in Camp Crame. The custodial centre is a special jail where high-profile detainees are kept while their court cases are ongoing.

Sulayao went to her jail cell when his bid to escape along with detainees Arnel Cabintoy and Idang Susukan was foiled by the police.

Ms De Lima was taken to hospital for a check-up.

The incident occurred after 6.30am, said PNP spokesman, Brigadier-General Roderick Alba. He said a corporal was taking food to the three inmates when they stabbed him with an improvised knife. 

The corporal and another officer fired at the inmates, killing two. Sulayao ran towards Ms De Lima’s cell and took her hostage.

Brig-Gen Alba said members of the PNP’s Special Action Forces tried to negotiate but Sulayao refused to cooperate and was later shot dead. 

In a letter dispatched from jail on Sunday evening, Ms De Lima said the hostage-taking was a “near-death experience”. Sulayao, while holding a knife to her chest, had told her he intended to kill her – he was certain he would also be killed after his two companions died.

Susukan, a sub-commander of the Abu Sayyaf terrorist group, had 34 arrest warrants for killings and kidnappings in southern Philippines and northern Malaysia before he surrendered in August 2020.

Cabintoy and Sulayao were arrested in June 2017 for being suspected members of Daulah Islamiyah, the local name for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria extremist group involved in the months-long takeover of Marawi City in southern Philippines that same year.

General Rodolfo Azurin Jr, the PNP chief, has ordered an in-depth investigation of the Sunday incident. 

President Ferdinand Marcos Jr also ordered Camp Crame, located in Quezon City, Manila, to enforce all measures to ensure that no act of violence will be repeated in PNP detention centres again.

He said he will be speaking to Ms De Lima to “check on her condition and ask if she wishes to be transferred to another centre”.

Ms De Lima has chosen to stay at the custodial centre, according to Secretary of the Interior and Local Government Benhur Abalos, who also visited her.

It remains unclear for now if the detained militants planned to take her as hostage, or it was a spur-of-the-moment decision following their foiled jailbreak.

A former human rights commissioner, Ms De Lima investigated reports of mass killings of drug suspects in Davao when Mr Duterte was the city’s mayor. Shortly after he became president in 2016, she also probed into his bloody drug war. 

He then had Ms De Lima investigated for supposedly abetting drug operations at the national penitentiary when she was justice minister.

She has denied these accusations, and recent court proceedings have exposed holes in cases filed against her. Civil rights advocates have condemned her incarceration, claiming it was abetted by a vindictive Mr Duterte.

The hostage-taking attempt has renewed calls from opposition figures and human rights groups to release Ms De Lima from jail. 

Sole opposition senator Risa Hontiveros, who visited Ms De Lima at the PNP custodial centre hours after the incident, described it as “unjust, barbaric and despicable”. In photos released by her office, she can be seen hugging Ms De Lima, who wore a blue duster dress as she sat on a chair in an office inside the centre.

In other pictures, Ms De Lima had her hand on her chest as she spoke to the senator about her ordeal. 

“The violence against former senator De Lima is only the latest act of injustice against her. This would not have happened had she not been jailed in the first place. This is political persecution at its worst,” said Ms Hontiveros.

Mr Renato Reyes Jr, secretary-general of progressive group Bahan, said Ms De Lima’s hostage-taking should be probed “to determine if she was the target of some nefarious plan”.

“It has been five years of unjust detention for the former senator. It is high time that she be released. Free Leila De Lima. That is the least the government can do,” he added.

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