MANILA — Officials in the Philippines should immediately release Senator Leila De Lima, jailed on politically motivated charges, and cease threats against her and other human rights defenders who have been critical of the government’s ‘war on drugs,’ ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) said today – two days before the Senator will celebrate her birthday in prison.
The collective of regional lawmakers also called for an end to the spate of killings by police and vigilantes since President Rodrigo Duterte took office in June 2016, which has seen a marked rise in recent weeks, along with increasing criticism from local activists, politicians, and religious leaders in the country.
“President Duterte’s increasingly brutal war on drugs is an affront to human rights, the rule of law, and democratic accountability. Senator De Lima’s pointed criticism of it should be applauded, not punished, and she should be freed from prison and allowed to continue her important work in the Senate,” said APHR Chairperson Charles Santiago, a member of the Malaysian Parliament.
“It’s clear that the charges against her are politically motivated, and her continued imprisonment, along with threatening rhetoric from the administration, sends a chilling signal to others who might oppose this killing spree.”
Senator Leila De Lima, who will celebrate her 58th birthday in prison on Sunday, was charged with three counts of drug trafficking on 17 February and arrested one week later. She has been in prison since, awaiting trial. Her arrest and detention fell clearly into a pattern of government attempts to silence criticism of the ongoing drug war and other policies spearheaded by President Duterte, APHR said.
“The evidence provided thus far of the Senator’s involvement in drug trafficking is flimsy at best, and follows previous attempts by President Duterte and his political allies to discredit her as she worked to investigate and shine a light on extrajudicial killings in the context of the drug war,” Santiago said.
Fellow regional lawmakers also highlighted Senator De Lima’s long history of defending human rights, having previously served as Chairperson of the Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines, during which she led investigations into the so-called death squads in Davao City, where Duterte spent over two decades as mayor. As a Senator, she chaired the Justice and Human Rights Committee, which began investigating extrajudicial killings before she was imprisoned and stripped of her chairmanship.
“Senator De Lima has always been a thorn in President Duterte’s side, first investigating Davao City’s notorious death squads and more recently, taking action to investigate extrajudicial killings. To pretend that this is not related to her arrest and imprisonment would be turning a blind eye to the reality on the ground,” said APHR Board Member Mu Sochua, a member of the Cambodian National Assembly.
MPs said that De Lima’s imprisonment is part of a broader environment of threats and action against drug war critics, which has had a chilling impact on human rights defenders in the country. On 16 August, President Duterte threatened that human rights advocates, including staff members of the Commission on Human Rights (CHR), which is investigating extrajudicial killings, could be shot on sight if found to be “obstructing justice.” This came after the President threatened, on 24 July, to block investigations into police misconduct by the CHR and said the body would “better abolished.”
“Throughout the region, both the political opposition and civil society are increasingly under threat, and unfortunately the Philippines is no exception. Targeting human rights advocates is a startling escalation of government rhetoric against critics there, and particularly in the context of rampant impunity for the deadly conduct of security forces, it represents an unacceptable threat to their safety and work. The President should retract his threatening statements and take steps to ensure that human rights defenders can continue their work without fear for their security,” Mu Sochua said.
Meanwhile, public criticism of police conduct has intensified in recent weeks, particularly following the 16 August killing by police of 17-year-old student Kian Loyd delos Santos. Eyewitness accounts and CCTV footage appear to contradict police claims that he was shot while resisting arrest. Parliamentarians echoed the concerns of Philippine citizens and urged regional governments to recognize the implications for their own countries.
“The human rights situation in the Philippines should be of concern to other governments in the region and to ASEAN itself, whose silence on this issue is becoming deafening,” said APHR Board Member Eva Kusuma Sundari, a member of the House of Representatives of Indonesia.
“The drug trade in Southeast Asia is a regional concern, but so are the responses to it. It is high time ASEAN pushed harder for accountability for extrajudicial killings in the Philippines, or risk seeing the situation deteriorate further, in the process tarnishing the region’s reputation.”