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Jailing of former senator raises fears over corrosion of democracy in the Philippines

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

As we look at the state of democracy around the world, let's turn to the Philippines. A human rights defender there has been jailed for years, raising fears that the country's democratic guardrails have corroded. Supporters of the jailed former senator say she was framed in retaliation for exposing unlawful killings during the war on drugs initiative of then-President Rodrigo Duterte. NPR's Julie McCarthy reports.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: Leila de Lima, the country's justice secretary from 2010 to 2015, turned 63 in late August - her sixth consecutive birthday marked in jail. Prosecutors, initially under former President Duterte, alleged that, as justice chief, de Lima conspired to receive payments from imprisoned drug lords. And in return, she tolerated their lucrative drug trade in the country's central prison. Her supporters are having none of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Chanting) Leila de Lima...

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting) Happy birthday.

MCCARTHY: Two dozen well-wishers greeted de Lima August 26 as she left one of the two trial courts hearing the criminal cases against her - cases that have been shaken by recanting witnesses. As de Lima headed back to jail, supporters shouted, free her, fake evidence and happy birthday. When asked her birthday wish, the one-time senator brightly replied...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LEILA DE LIMA: Always freedom and vindication - soon.

MCCARTHY: But if anything, de Lima's case demonstrates the glacial pace of justice in the Philippines. After nearly six years, there is no conviction or exoneration. Graft charges still loom. De Lima defense attorney, Dino de Leon, says the government manufactured cases against de Lima using coerced testimony from convicted felons with an axe to grind. He says, eight years ago, de Lima actually raided the country's maximum-security prison as justice secretary, dismantling the luxurious accommodations of drug baron inmates. By the time she was elected to the Senate in 2016, opponents were accusing de Lima of coddling drug lords, a charge she refuted on the floor of the Senate.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DE LIMA: This is not only an attack against me, but against any senator who dares to be outspoken.

MCCARTHY: She then pivoted to abuses of Duterte's national war on drugs as it was getting underway.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DE LIMA: We cannot wage the war against drugs with blood. We will only be trading drug addiction with another, more malevolent kind of addiction. And this is the compulsion for more killing - killings that have now included even the innocent.

MCCARTHY: The Philippines' DEA says 6,252 Filipinos have been killed in police narcotics operations since 2016. Rights groups say the number is at least four times that. De Lima first crossed swords with Duterte when she investigated then-Mayor Duterte for extrajudicial killings in Davao City, where alleged death squads targeted petty criminals and drug addicts. When de Lima launched a Senate investigation against Duterte's nationwide drug war in 2016, colleagues sidelined her. Duterte quipped at the time, de Lima wanted to implicate me, but it is she who will go to jail if her alleged links to the drug trade are actually proven.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RODRIGO DUTERTE: If those connections are true, she will rot in jail. She will rot in jail. It's no bail.

MCCARTHY: Drug offenses are nonbailable in the Philippines. De Lima penned a handwritten statement for NPR, delivered through her staff. She says she has lost her freedom because of vengeance, demonstrating, she says, how democracy can be dismantled in a bat of an eye. She continues - my case is a clear example of Duterte's willingness to commit a crime or to allow a crime to be committed, she says, in order to silence a critic. The office of the president, she writes, was being treated like a monarchical institution.

SOCORRO REYES: It only shows how effective - how powerful government propaganda can be.

MCCARTHY: That's Socorro Reyes, member of the Free Leila Committee and de Lima's professor at university. Reyes says the Philippines reflects the unseemly tactics of a global assault on liberal democratic values. The compliant House of Representatives even threatened to release a sex video ostensibly featuring the senator.

REYES: It's the height of what you can do to a woman. So what we did is we started boasting, I am the woman in the video. I am the woman in the sex video, and I'm ready to appear.

MCCARTHY: The House had no video show. Reyes says de Lima spent nearly her entire Senate term isolated in jail - no internet, cell phone or computer, few visitors besides the stray cats she's befriended. She still managed to handwrite influential legislation supporting the poor and elderly, says colleague Senator Koko Pimentel. Though de Lima lost reelection in May, I asked Pimentel...

Does she have something to teach the Senate, the Congress, elected officials?

KOKO PIMENTEL: Of course, a lot - you know that you have to have principles in life, and it's not easy. You will be tested, and sometimes you will be persecuted for these principles.

MCCARTHY: Political lecturer Arjan Aguirre of Ateneo de Manila University insists that Duterte carried out a political vendetta against de Lima. But Aguirre says she's an illustration of how Duterte targeted critics selectively so Filipinos would not perceive a threat to their democracy overall.

ARJAN AGUIRRE: They still think that we are in a democratic society, and Rodrigo Roa Duterte's, you know, trying his best to save us from an oligarchic rule.

MCCARTHY: Legal observers say, closing in on six years, the de Lima affair may look more like arbitrary detention. Defense lawyer de Leon says one case has been dismissed. Two key witnesses retracted their stories in a second case. And in a third case, the evidence relies mainly on statements from convicted felons. De Leon says the defense might be able to show the government used the power of the state to invent allegations.

DINO DE LEON: And actually using its machinery just to persecute an innocent person. But that has to be proven.

MCCARTHY: A group of U.S. senators wants the new president, Ferdinand Marcos Jr., to right what they call the injustices of his predecessor and clear de Lima of any wrongdoing. Massachusetts Democrat, Senator Ed Markey, recently led a delegation to Camp Crame inside the national police headquarters to visit the woman he calls a prisoner of conscience. Before, Duterte barred U.S. lawmakers from seeing de Lima, and so Markey said the visit offered a sign of progress. And while releasing de Lima could burnish the country's battered human rights image, Aguirre cautions that freeing her may not be on Manila's agenda.

AGUIRRE: They will do more calculations, and my understanding there is that they will stick to the status quo. They will not release Senator Leila de Lima soon - soon.

MCCARTHY: The presidential palace told NPR that it would leave the case to the trial court. The Justice Department said it would rely on the sound discretion of the court and did not respond to queries about its plans. Julie McCarthy, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Julie McCarthy has spent most of career traveling the world for NPR. She's covered wars, prime ministers, presidents and paupers. But her favorite stories "are about the common man or woman doing uncommon things," she says.