Are Davaoenos convinced that de Lima’s innocent?

Nov. 17, 2023

DAVAO CITY, Philippines- For the past seven years, former senator and justice secretary Leila de Lima has faced two uphill battles – the legal case that sent her to jail for allegedly enabling the drug trade inside the New Bilibid Prison, and the second, the “demolition job” by the past administration’s enablers and spinners that painted her guilty ahead of the courts.

De Lima was freed on bail last Monday, November 13.  Two of the three charges against her have been dismissed due to lack of evidence and the recantations of statements from witnesses who claimed they were coerced by authorities.

The third and final case, the one where she has posted bail, is expected to be dismissed as well, de Lima’s lawyers said.

While most netizens praised the court decision and hailed de Lima for withstanding nearly seven years in detention, some netizens in Davao City, home of former President Rodrigo Duterte who set the charges and attacks on de Lima, chided the former senator.

On the social media page of a Davao local daily, some 800 comments and 200 shares mocked de Lima and even the court decision.

“Sayang lang ang na umpisahan ni tatay degung. bulok na ulit ang systema ng pilipinas (What a waste of what Tatay Digong started, the Philippine system is rotten once again),” a netizen posted his comment on the news thread. “Mabuhay ang droga (long live drugs),” another posted.

Dailies in Davao City have barely published stories on de Lima’s bail except for statements from public officials; some radio programs made commentaries on the decision, but one reportedly commented on de Lima’s weight loss and age, saying Duterte needs to let her free.

Only SMNI News, owned by Duterte ally Pastor Apollo Quiboloy, got Duterte’s reaction on the bail during the Gikan sa Masa Para sa Masa program on Wednesday, where the former president has said “I would not want to question the wisdom of the court in granting, sa judge yan eh (that is the judge’s decision), so I don’t want to discuss.”

But is the Davao public now convinced that de Lima is innocent of these charges?

“The Davao public was convinced (before) that there really was a genuine case against De Lima. They were convinced that the president, being from Davao, would spare no crook,” says Dr. Jean Lindo, chair of Gabriela Southern Mindanao.

Duterte won the presidency in 2016 on a populist campaign that he will rid the government from corruption and illegal drugs.

De Lima has been branded as a fierce critic of Duterte’s “war on drugs” campaign, which started since her days as chair of the Commission on Human Rights in 2009.

As senator in 2016, she launched an inquiry on the “Davao death squads” Duterte countered by claiming she enabled drug smuggling with jail officials, which set off the legal case and attacks by Duterte’s allies in Congress.

Former DSWD undersecretary Mae Fe Templa believes Duterte had “vindictiveness playing around him”, thinking that his populist stand had convinced people against his critic.

But the prosecution, according to lawyers, have failed to present evidence that de Lima has been involved in the allegations of drug trade when she was secretary of justice under the Aquino presidency from 2010 to 2016.

“My personal take is that this is the only drugs case where there is no drugs evidence presented in court, there’s no corpus delicti (body of the crime),” says lawyer Dexter Lopoz, spokesperson of the Union of Peoples’ Lawyers in Mindanao.

Previous witnesses against de Lima have also recanted their statements that weakened the case, including from former Bureau of Corrections Chief Rafael Ragos, former de Lima aide Ronnie Dayan and self-confessed drug lord Kerwin Espinosa, all saying they were “coerced” by authorities to frame the senator.

“Considering recantations of (these alleged) witnesses, the case of De Lima is a very glaring evidence of the failed justice system,” Templa observes, noting how the courts have denied petitions for demurrer and bail in the past prior to November 13.

“Whether tama or mali (right or wrong), there are human rights or justice principles that need to be applied. There are laws. It is not about bias for politicians that we admire or love or hate,” Lindo added.

Templa and Lindo shared insights that the propaganda against de Lima reflects the administration’s view on gender and marginalized groups.

“(This) is also a gendered case that reflects how the former Executive viewed the entire scenario,” Templa said, recalling how Duterte allies in Congress played up the love angle of de Lima with Dayan to stir public opinion.

Lindo also noted that the legal struggle of de Lima reflects the way the government and military has attacked progressives by red-tagging and filing trumped-up charges.

“If it can be done to a senator like De Lima, it can happen to others whose audacity to protest comes from what they see as unjust and needs to be resisted,” says Lindo.

Lindo herself has been red-tagged in posters in Davao City in 2020 alleging she is a New People’s Army rebel.

Lopoz said there was “a lot of breakdown of the rule of law during the time of Duterte” including red-tagging, extra-judicial killings, trumped up charges, and corruption among its allies.

But he noted, “the cult of Duterte hasn’t waned.  But (the public) knows deep down, the case is useless and just powerplay.”

Duterte’s drug war has been criticized for human rights violations as the former president faces prosecution in the International Trial Court for police abuse and extrajudicial killings of thousands.

What is needed, he said, is “civil society and people’s organizations in Davao City to continue to educate the youth on the primacy of the Rule of Law.”

“Our only hope is for the students and the youth of Davao to be educated on these things to finally break the shackles of ignorance, indifference and the cult of Duterte.”(

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