MANILA, Philippines — “Finally, freedom!”
These were the first words former Sen. Leila de Lima said in the courtroom on Monday immediately after the judge in charge of the third and last case against her granted her petition for bail. She then sobbed uncontrollably as her family, friends, and legal team celebrated her imminent release after nearly seven years in detention, with some also breaking down in tears.
Later, a composed but still emotional De Lima faced the media and her supporters who were waiting outside the courtroom.
“Finally, I will be set free. For years, my whole team has been crying out for justice and freedom, for more than six long years I’ve been praying so hard for this day to come,” she said as chants of “Free Leila Now!” from her supporters echoed in the background.
“It is very painful to be jailed if you are innocent, and I don’t want this to happen to others. But I don’t want to be sad or bitter today. This is a moment of triumph and thanksgiving,” De Lima added.
She thanked God, her family and friends, her legal team, supporters, and the judge hearing her case, Muntinlupa City Regional Trial Court Branch 206 Judge Gener Gito, for his “loyalty to the law and justice.”
She also thanked the Marcos administration “for respecting the independence of the judiciary and the rule of law.”
‘A great gift’
At a press briefing in the evening in Quezon City, De Lima reflected on her ordeal which according to her lasted for six years, eight months, and 21 days.
She described it as one of her “greatest achievements” in her career and life, saying, “Not only did I survive all these years of persecution and unjust detention, I came out stronger than ever, with an even stronger commitment to truth, justice, human rights, democracy and the rule of law.”
“They may have taken years of my life, but they will never take away my humanity,” she added.
Acknowledging that her case was still pending since she was only granted bail, De Lima, however, called the development “a great gift” from God.
She also reiterated her gratitude to the government for respecting the independence of the judiciary.
Lack of substantial evidence
“When the Marcos administration came in, there was hope, at least in my case, that justice will happen. I always knew that while the former president was in power, I will not be set free because my persecution was his project,” De Lima said, referring to Rodrigo Duterte.
Asked if she had a message for him, she replied: “God forgive him and God bless him. That’s it for now. I can say a lot more but not now. I don’t want to be political sounding tonight because this is a moment of joy, this is a triumphant moment for me so as much as possible I want to be gracious. God forgive him and God bless him. He knows what he did to me, I suppose.”
In his ruling allowing De Lima to post bail of P300,000, Gito pointed to the lack of substantial evidence presented by the prosecution, noting that her guilt was not sufficiently established.
Duterte had accused her of colluding with drug gangs inside New Bilibid Prison (NBP) while she was justice secretary, leading to the filing of three cases against her.
De Lima, who was charged and arrested in 2017, had always maintained her innocence, claiming that the charges were baseless and in retaliation for the investigation she conducted in the Senate of his bloody drug war.
Her legal team earlier foresaw the weakening of the final case against her due to the recantation of witnesses and the change in the political landscape after Duterte left office last year. De Lima had already been acquitted in the first two cases in 2021 and 2022.
In Monday’s hearing on the last case against her — where she and her co-accused were charged with conspiring to enable drug trading at NBP to raise money for her senatorial bid in 2016 — the judge cast doubt on the prosecution’s case against De Lima.
In a 69-page ruling, Gito, who had replaced Judge Romeo Buenaventura, said the testimonies provided by the nine witnesses against her failed to convincingly establish a conspiracy for illegal drug trading.
A key witness, retired Police Supt. Jerry Valeroso had alleged that he saw P65 million in drug money inside a Chinese inmate’s “kubol” or makeshift dwelling. But the court emphasized that even if his claim was true, it would not constitute direct or circumstantial evidence of a shared intent among the accused to commit the alleged crime.
As for the testimonies of other witnesses, including Nonito Arile, Renante Diaz, Engelberto Durano, Noel Martinez, and Joel Capones, the court said that it found a lack of substantial evidence to support the charge against De Lima.
“Leila will not sleep tonight (Monday night) in Crame,” one of her lawyers, Dino de Leon, told reporters immediately after the hearing, referring to the detention center at the Philippine National Police headquarters where the former senator had spent almost seven years.
Her camp has also started preparing for countersuits, with De Leon saying, “There will always be a day of reckoning.”
“My lawyers and I are still talking about it. We have no specifics that we can announce now. There’s always that option but as to definite plans, we’re still talking about it,” De Lima added.
The welcome development in her case came amid mounting international pressure for her release and as Duterte faces an International Criminal Court investigation for alleged crimes against humanity related to the drug war he waged during his presidency and as Davao City mayor.
The campaign, which lasted six years, resulted in the summary execution of around 7,000 drug suspects, according to Amnesty International.
—WITH REPORTS FROM FRANCES MANGOSING AND INQUIRER RESEARCH