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Philippines: Detained Duterte critic must be freed immediately

The Philippines government must immediately drop all charges and release prisoner of conscience Senator Leila de Lima, an outspoken critic of President Rodrigo Duterte, Amnesty International said ahead of the anniversary of her arrest tomorrow (Saturday 24).

Ms de Lima was arrested on 24 February last year on three separate spurious charges under the country’s Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act. Prior to her arrest, Duterte and other supporters had led a vicious campaign of harassment and intimidation against the senator, and falsely tried to implicate her in the drug trade.

Lack of evidence

Senator de Lima has long been an outspoken critic of President Duterte's bloody "war on drugs", in which police have unlawfully killed thousands of people, mainly from poor and marginalised communities. De Lima apparently angered the government by calling for accountability for police and senior officials, including the president, and by leading Senate inquiries into the carnage.

In 2012, as Chair of the Philippines Commission on Human Rights, the senator also carried out an inquiry into Duterte's involvement in extrajudicial executions while the mayor of Davao City, which recommended that the Office of the Ombudsman investigate him. In 2016, President Duterte told media that he wanted to "destroy her in public."

De Lima's legal team has raised serious concerns about the lack of evidence to support the charges against her and the authorities seem to have taken punitive measures against her in detention. She is being held in the police headquarters in Camp Crane, Quezon City, where she has been refused access to the internet, a mobile phone or a radio or TV. Police have ignored a request from her doctor to install an air conditioning unit in her cell.

James Gomez, Amnesty’s Director of Southeast Asia and the Pacific, said:

"The charges against Senator Leila de Lima are pure fiction. She has been singled out and targeted for nothing but her courageous opposition to President Duterte's appalling policies.

“We consider her to be a prisoner of conscience and urge the authorities to release her immediately and unconditionally.

"It is a sad state of affairs when the Philippines government is more interested in jailing critics than preventing police from killing thousands of mainly poor people.

"It is becoming more and more dangerous in the Philippines to speak out against the Duterte government, and its murderous drug policies. It is high time for the international community, including the UN, to apply stronger pressure on the government and support an international investigation into the Philippines."

Crackdown on the media and human rights defenders

The anniversary of Senator de Lima's arrest takes place as the Philippines government has intensified a wider crackdown on critics in media and civil society. In January, the government ordered the closure of the independent online media outlet Rappler in another politically-motivated attack on the right to freedom of expression. Observers have also accused the Duterte government of pressuring the owners of The Inquirer - one of the country's most influential independent media outlets - to sell the paper to new owners with close ties to the administration.

President Duterte has also threatened human rights defenders in public. Last August, he encouraged police to shoot rights activists who were "obstructing justice" or to charge them with conspiracy. The President has also singled out other national and international critics, including the current Chair of the Human Rights Commission, Chito Gascon, and Agnes Callamard, the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, in vicious verbal tirades.

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