The Philippines released on bail its most famous political prisoner, Leila de Lima, whose six-year detention served as a stark warning to those who dared to question former President Rodrigo Duterte’s brutal drug war.
Her release on Monday was ordered by a court in the city of Muntinlupa after five witnesses recanted their testimony in the case. Ms. de Lima, a former senator who had started multiple investigations into Mr. Duterte’s war on drugs, was charged on accusations of taking bribes from imprisoned drug traffickers. Though she was never convicted, she has been detained since February 2017 at the police headquarters in Manila.
Ms. de Lima, 64, has long maintained that the charges were fabricated and that she was a victim of political persecution.
“Freedom, freedom, freedom — I’m finally free!” she said in court after hearing the decision.
In a phone call from the courtroom, Ms. de Lima said: “Unbelievable. I’m free after 2,024 days. I did not deserve to be in jail. It was very painful. I don’t want for others to experience this.”
For years, U.S. lawmakers, the European Parliament and international human rights groups have called for the Philippine government to release Ms. de Lima. The U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention found in 2018 that her detention was arbitrary, adding that it was seriously concerned about remarks that Mr. Duterte and his allies had made against her after she called for an investigation into his government-sanctioned drug violence.
Ms. de Lima has served as the public face of the efforts against Mr. Duterte’s brutal campaign, which started soon after he took office in 2016. Night after night, men and boys were gunned down by the police. The Philippine National Police has said about 8,000 people have been killed in the violence, but human rights groups have reported higher numbers. Activists say a vast majority of those killed were poor Filipinos, some of whom were young boys or had nothing to do with the drug trade.
As the chairwoman of the Philippine Commission on Human Rights in the late 2000s, Ms. de Lima led an investigation into the so-called Davao Death Squad — people hired to commit extrajudicial killings in Davao City when Mr. Duterte was its mayor. And as the chairwoman of the Senate Justice Committee, Ms. de Lima investigated Mr. Duterte’s antidrug campaign.
Soon after, Mr. Duterte accused Ms. de Lima of having an affair with her driver; of making a sex tape that he claimed to have watched; and of taking millions of dollars in cash from convicted drug traffickers to finance her senatorial campaign. The last charge became the basis of a criminal case against her.
Ms. de Lima had previously been acquitted of two of the three charges filed against her. Her supporters are now hopeful that she will be cleared of the last charge, especially after the court’s ruling on Monday that the prosecution had not established strong evidence of guilt. The court said she could be released after posting bail of about $5,300.
Her release is likely to improve the Philippine government’s image abroad. Many Western lawmakers have pleaded for Ms. de Lima’s release to President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., who has made deepening his country’s alliance with the United States and other Western governments a cornerstone of his foreign policy. Mr. Marcos is set to travel to San Francisco on Tuesday to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit.
A U.S. congressional delegation led by Senator Edward J. Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts, visited Ms. de Lima in August 2022 and met with Mr. Marcos and his justice secretary, Jesus Crispin Remulla, to discuss human rights.
In a letter to Mr. Remulla in October 2022, Mr. Markey and his colleagues called on the Philippine government to “officially recognize the lack of evidence” against Ms. de Lima.
“By reviewing Senator de Lima’s case, dropping the charges against her and bringing those responsible for her unjust detention to account,” the letter said, “you and President Marcos Jr. can turn the page on President Duterte’s abuses and demonstrate your commitment to the rule of the law in the Philippines.”
Human rights activists and Ms. de Lima’s former colleagues celebrated her release.
The decision was “the beginning of the end to this shameful episode in our democracy,” Risa Hontiveros, a Philippine senator, said in a statement.
“She never should have been unjustly prosecuted and detained by former President Rodrigo Duterte, whose 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,” said Bryony Lau, the deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch.
In July, Ms. de Lima told The Times that she was so confident in the odds of approval for her bail plea that she had started sending some of her belongings home. But she still worried about her readjustment to life after jail.
“I know there is no substitute for freedom,” she said. “But I am feeling anxious. I ask myself: Am I ready for life outside? This has been my home for years.”
Ms. de Lima’s first order of business is to return to her hometown, Iriga City, to be with her ailing mother. A staunch Catholic, Ms. de Lima said she had “forgiven the witnesses that were used against me, because I know they were placed in that position because of me.”
She added: “But I am not ready to forgive Duterte. I pray to the Lord that He be the one to forgive him for now, because I just can’t do that.”
Jason Gutierrez contributed reporting.