Jinky Jorgio/CNN
Human rights campaigner and former senator Leila de Lima was granted bail on November 13, 2023 after more than six years under police custody.
CNN  — 

A Philippine court has granted bail for Leila De Lima, one of the most vocal critics of ex-President Rodrigo Duterte’s bloody “war on drugs” after being held in police custody for over six years.

“I have to rebuild my life. My life that they have tried to destroy,” De Lima told CNN inside the a regional trial court in the suburb of Muntinlupa City after Presiding Judge Hon. Gener M. Gito made the decision on Monday.

She was led out of the courtroom with a police escort while cheers of “Free Leila Now” were heard as she exited. The bail conditions were set at roughly $5,300 (300,000 Philippine pesos), and her legal team is expected to file the paperwork later on Monday evening.

De Lima had been acquitted of two out of the three charges laid against her, which all stemmed from allegations made by Duterte that she received payoffs from convicted drug gangs to fund her 2016 senatorial bid.

Organizations like the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch have criticized De Lima’s detention, calling it “arbitrary” and demanding her immediate release.

Human rights activists have long criticized the detention of De Lima, pointing out that she has been held in a police cell since February 2017 despite not having been convicted of any charges.

They say her treatment is emblematic of a deteriorating rights situation in a country where political activists and the media often face threats, harassment and even death for attempting to keep those in power in check.

Court proceedings against de Lima have been marked by undue delays, including the failure of prosecution witnesses to appear in court and changes in judges handling her cases.

Eloisa Lopez/Reuters
Supporters of Leila de Lima have long called for her release as crowds gathered in a recent a hearing in Muntinlupa, Philippines, June 5, 2023.

With her long-awaited temporary release, De Lima said she will be prioritizing spending quality time with her family, especially with her mother who is now 91 years old.

“She’s waiting for me. I have to be with her. She’s been waiting for me all these years,” De Lima said.

De Lima’s bail “must lead to dismissal of last bogus charge against her,” Amnesty International said in a statement on Monday.

“The court’s granting of Leila de Lima’s bail application is indeed a welcome development. Allowing her temporary liberty should be a step toward justice for Leila, beginning with the dismissal of this last charge against her,” said Butch Olano, section director of Amnesty International Philippines.

“Leila has been targeted by the government for her criticism of the murderous ‘war on drugs’ and other human rights violations. She should have never spent even a single day in detention. This last remaining drug case against her must be dismissed expeditiously, and those behind her arbitrary detention and other violations of her human rights must be brought to justice,” Olano added.

Leading the fight against the “war on drugs”

Duterte and De Lima had been facing off for years, dating all the way back to his long reign as mayor of Davao City in the southern Philippine region of Mindanao.

In 2009, De Lima launched a probe into the suspected Davao Death Squad where members were reported to be “routinely killing street children and others in broad daylight,” according to a report by Philip Alston, a United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions.

The investigation, led by De Lima, who at the time was the chair of the Commission on Human Rights chair, uncovered a mass grave of human remains near a quarry and hundreds of deaths allegedly linked to members of the Davao Death Squad – with at least two hitmen publicly accusing Duterte for ordering the killings.

Years later, De Lima, who had wrapped up her service as Secretary of Justice, was elected to the Senate in May 2016, on the same day Duterte won the presidency on a platform of cracking down on crime, particularly illegal drugs.

Duterte had admitted to killing drug suspects during his time as mayor of Davao City, and openly waged a crackdown on suspected drug dealers and petty peddlers through a vast network police allies and vigilantes.

More than 6,000 people were killed in anti-drug operations between July 1, 2016 and May 31, 2022 during Duterte’s controversial anti-drug campaign, according to police data.

Many of the extrajudicial killings of suspected drug offenders have occurred in the poorest areas of the country – and independent monitors believe the number of those killed could be much higher.

Murder on the streets of the Philippines were rampant when the war on drugs took off, with shocking photographs published in local and international media showing suspected drug dealers shot dead in pools of blood next to labels alleging their crimes. Often the unidentified gunmen have fled the scene.

Minors were frequently among those killed as well people that locals and rights groups said had nothing to do with the drug trade. Critics of the government were also often named by Duterte as being placed on kill lists, or warned they could end up there.

Police accounts of how a suspected drug dealer was killed would often clash widely with CCTV and witness testimony later gathered by journalists and rights workers.

De Lima used her position in the senate to rail against Duterte’s war on drugs and call for an inquiry into extrajudicial killings.

Duterte rejected criticism over the killings, and warned lawmakers in a speech saying,“Be careful with me because when I say I will do it for my country, I will do it even if I have to kill you or be killed in the process.”

Despite growing outcry abroad and his divisive ruling style, his war on drugs and his administration’s attacks against the free press, Duterte remained popular at home for much of his tenure.

Last January, the International Criminal Court said it wants to revive its investigation into possible “crimes against humanity” over Duterte’s drug war. The Hague-based court initially announced plans for an investigation in February 2018 but suspended them in November 2021 at the request of Manila after it said it was undertaking its own review.

However, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. – who succeeded Duterte last year – said his country is “disengaging” from any contact with the ICC, saying Manila did not recognize its authority over matters of national sovereignty.