Top Duterte critic held over drug charges

Senator Leila De Lima
Senator Leila De LimaPHOTO: REUTERS

Senator calls allegations against her 'lies' and says the government is persecuting her

A senator who has been the fiercest critic of President Rodrigo Duterte's brutal narcotics war was arrested yesterday on charges that she coddled drug gangs inside the national penitentiary when she headed the Department of Justice.

However, Senator Leila de Lima, 57, has moved to have the case dropped entirely, calling the allegations against her "lies" and claiming "plain and simple persecution" by the government.

"My arrest is an appalling sign of the return of a power-hungry, morally bankrupt and abusive government… There is no doubt that our President is a murderer and a sociopathic serial killer," she said in a 10-minute video posted on her Facebook page. "It's my honour to be jailed for the principles I am fighting for," she later told reporters, before she turned herself over to a police team 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.

FIGHTING WORDS

It's my honour to be jailed for the principles I am fighting for.

SENATOR LEILA DE LIMA, flashing the sign that means "Laban" - fight - after appearing in court yesterday.

The alleged conduit for the money is her former driver, Mr Ronnie Dayan, with whom she was accused of having an affair. Mr Dayan was arrested on Thursday.

Ms De Lima has said that the government's case rests largely on testimonies that inmates were coerced into giving.

Mr Duterte declined to comment on his arch-foe's arrest in a speech he gave yesterday at a new drug facility in Davao del Norte province. But he again trumpeted his crackdown on illegal drugs.

"You addicts are leaning on due process and human rights. You think those two basic principles can protect you. I'm sorry to tell you that they cannot," he said.

Earlier, his spokesman, Mr Ernesto Abella, said the senator's arrest "demonstrates the President's strong resolve to fight pushers, peddlers, and their protectors".

Ms De Lima is perhaps the loudest voice in Congress opposing Mr Duterte's controversial anti-crime drive. As head of the human rights commission in 2009, she investigated more than a thousand killings linked to "death squads" purportedly nurtured by Mr Duterte to go after criminals and his political rivals when he ruled the southern city of Davao from 1988.

She then led a Senate inquiry into the killing of more than 7,000 people by police and militias since Mr Duterte took power last June and began a crackdown on drug dealers.

In a Senate hearing last September, she presented a witness who claimed to have worked as a hitman for Mr Duterte.

Ms De Lima was almost immediately demoted from the Senate 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".

Vice-President Leni Robredo, who belongs to the same party as the senator, described the arrest as "political harassment".

"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.

The arrest comes as the Senate prepares to hear testimonies of a retired police officer, who corroborated many of the claims made by the self-confessed hitman against Mr Duterte.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 25, 2017, with the headline 'Top Duterte critic held over drug charges'. Print Edition | Subscribe