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De Lima walks free on bail

CRY OF FREEDOM. Former Senator Leila De Lima cries as she waves at supporters from her detention bus after she was allowed to post bail for her drug case at the Muntinlupa court on Monday. Danny Pata
Rey E. Requejo, Macon Ramos-Araneta & Maricel Cruz

Court grants ex-senator’s petition, exits detention after 7 years

“Sweet, sweet freedom.”

This was how former Senator Leila de Lima described her release after nearly seven years behind bars following the decision of a Muntinlupa City judge to grant her bail.

“I’m free. Thank you, at last, I am free after 2,424 days. I am now free. Sweet, sweet freedom. Thank you, Lord. Thank you, everyone,” De Lima said Monday evening as she was released from the Philippine National Police Custodial Center in Camp Crame after completing the bail procedures and undergoing a physical check-up.

“I want to thank the BBM (President Marcos) administration for respecting the independence of the judiciary. To all of you who believed in me, thank you so much. You did not abandon me. You fought for me,” De Lima said.

One of the most outspoken critics of former president Rodrigo Duterte and his deadly anti-drug war, De Lima was jailed on narcotics-related charges which she said were fabricated to silence her.

She said as much as she was happy to be finally free — after six years, eight months, and two days – she was also sad to leave her cats at the custodial center who have kept her sane all those years she was incarcerated.

“I have stray cats in my quarters. That’s why I was so sad. I was almost crying when I left Camp Crame or custodial today because I had to leave the cats there. They’ve been my companions, they kept my sanity intact.”

“I have learned to appreciate the mundane, small things in life. When it rains, I get out of my quarters just to observe the rain,” she added.

Judge Gener Gito allowed De Lima and her four surviving co-accused – former Bureau of Corrections director Franklin Jesus Bucayu, Ronnie Dayan, Joenel Sanchez, and Jose Adrian Dera – to post bail of P300,000 each.

De Lima has been detained at the Philippine National Police Custodial Center in Camp Crame since Feb. 24, 2017.

In his decision, Gito reversed his previous decision denying De Lima’s plea to post bail.

“Motions for reconsideration of the concerned accused are granted. Thus, the Order of the Court dated June 07, 2023, is reconsidered,” the trial court said in its order released yesterday.

Former Vice President Leni Robredo, ex-senator Antonio Trillanes, and several others – mostly allies in the political opposition under Duterte – rejoiced over the granting of bail to De Lima.

In a post on X (formerly Twitter), Robredo said the court’s decision shows there is no basis to the allegations that De Lima was involved in narcotics, and that despite the nearly seven-year wait, “the truth has finally prevailed.”

“Through all these years, Senator Leila has been a source of inspiration for us. Her courage and her faith lent so many of us the resolve to continue fighting the good fight, to speak truth to power, and to keep believing that the Filipino people deserve so much more,” Robredo added.

“Welcome news to see @AttyLeiladeLima approved for release at long last,” US Ambassador MaryKay Carlson likewise posted on X.

“We continue to follow her case closely and look forward to seeing the remaining charges against her resolved in accordance with Philippine law.”

“This is a moment of triumphant joy and also thanksgiving,” De Lima said earlier in the day after her bail petition was approved.

“I’ve been praying so hard for this day to come. It’s very painful to be jailed despite being innocent.”

In a separate interview with CNN while inside the court on Monday, De Lima said: “I have to rebuild my life – my life that they tried to destroy.”

De Lima waved to supporters who chanted “Free Leila Now” as she exited the Manila court, surrounded by police officers and journalists.

Her lawyer, Filibon Tacardon, said De Lima “cried” when the decision was announced in the court.

“We expected the bail solely because of the merits of the case,” Tacardon told reporters. “We believe that she’s innocent – we all believe that she’s innocent and all these charges are trumped up.”

De Lima, 64, wass accused of taking money from inmates inside the New Bilibid Prison to allow them to sell drugs while she was Justice Secretary from 2010 to 2015.

Multiple witnesses, including prison gang bosses, died or recanted their testimonies, resulting in the dismissal of two of the three charges against De Lima.

She still faces life in prison if convicted on the remaining charge of allegedly receiving P70 million in illegal drugs earnings collected by narcotics traders inside the NBP in Muntinlupa City.

Justice Secretary Jesus Remulla said the ruling was proof of the “independence of the judiciary” and that “democracy is alive” in the Philippines.

“It just shows that there is democracy. Democracy is alive and well in our country,” Remulla said, in a media briefing.

“It just shows the independence of the judiciary that I have always been saying from the very beginning. We are independent from each other and that they are free to decide as they deem fit…I call it prosecutorial independence. I do not interfere in the job of the prosecution especially with these matters,” he added.

Senator Ronald dela Rosa, who was police chief during Duterte’s bloody war against drugs, said he would be happy to see De Lima free.

“I’m happy for her. One soul freed from detention. I am happy for my kapwa tao,” he said in a press briefing.

“You don’t agree with that or you may feel strongly about it, but you have to respect the court,” he added.

Senator Risa Hontiveros considered the granting of bail as a vindication for her former colleague, while Senator Grace Poe said the long detention of De Lima was unjust.

Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman said the decision was “a step toward justice… and a harsh indictment of those who falsely accused her of wrongdoing and caused her years of unimaginable suffering in solitary confinement and the indescribable anguish of the malevolently accused.”

House Deputy Minority leader and ACT Teachers party-list Rep. France Castro said “the granting of bail to de Lima was long overdue but a welcome news nonetheless.”

The governments of Canada and the European Union welcomed the court decision.

“We will continue to follow her situation closely, with the expectation of rapid resolution of proceedings in the case against her,” the Canadian embassy said.

EU Ambassador Luc Veron, in a post on X, said: “Very pleased by the news of @AttyLeiladeLima’s release.”

He said it was a “significant step for rule of law” in the Philippines and “a positive turn in the pursuit of justice.”

“I hope that the resolution of the remaining charges will be accelerated,” Veron said.

Since President Marcos came into office in June 2022, there have been renewed calls from human rights groups, foreign diplomats and politicians for De Lima’s release.

Rights groups welcomed the bail decision.

“She never should have been unjustly prosecuted and detained by former President Rodrigo Duterte,” Human Rights Watch deputy Asia director Bryony Lau said.

Lau said Duterte’s administration “concocted evidence and used the machinery of an abusive state to punish her for performing her duties as a senator and speaking out against the ‘war on drugs.’”

Amnesty International called for the last remaining drug charge to be “dismissed expeditiously” and those behind her detention “be brought to justice.”

De Lima lost her bid for re-election in May 2022 after campaigning from behind bars.

While in jail, De Lima has suffered various health problems, including a pelvic organ prolapse that required surgery.

In October 2022, she was briefly taken hostage during an attempted breakout by three detained militants. With AFP

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