Justice secretary pushes for prosecution of Duterte foe as president leaves office

State prosecutors are advising the Philippine government not to drop drug-related charges against Sen. Leila de Lima, a jailed top critic of the outgoing administration’s bloody crackdown on illegal drugs, the justice secretary said Tuesday, despite the withdrawal of testimonies by key witnesses.

De Lima has been incarcerated since February 2017 but is awaiting trial on charges that she received proceeds from the sale of illegal drugs when she headed the Department of Justice. She has denied those charges, accusing President Rodrigo Duterte of wanting to silence her because she was among the most vocal critics of his drug war, which has left thousands dead.

“The panel of prosecutors has advised that, after a thorough review of the evidence already presented as well as evidence still to be presented, there is good reason to continue the active prosecution of the senator,” Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said in a message to reporters on Tuesday.

In April, Kerwin Espinosa, a self-confessed drug lord, recanted his statement implicating de Lima, followed by two other witnesses who said they were coerced into implicating the senator.

“As far as the retractions of certain persons are concerned, the prosecution takes the position that until these persons are actually presented in court for examination to ascertain their truthfulness, their alleged recantations have no probative value whatsoever,” Guevarra said. “In any event, the final say on the disposition of the cases rests on the judge alone.”

Guevarra said his successor would decide whether to carry on with the prosecution of de Lima. President-elect Ferdinand Marcos Jr., who will be sworn in on June 30, has nominated Jesus Crispin Remulla to serve as justice secretary.

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While Espinosa and the other witnesses had cleared de Lima earlier this year, prosecutors have another witness – convicted drug dealer Herbert Colanggo – who told Philippine media on Monday that he would testify against the senator.

De Lima, who lost her re-election bid to the Senate in the May 9 general election, attacked Colanggo in a series of tweets on Tuesday.

“I have no ill feelings towards the convicted criminals who were coerced or bribed to falsely testify against me. But when this is done with relish and gusto, like how Herbert Colanggo seems to enjoy the spotlight, whether when speaking to the media or on the witness stand, then that is another matter altogether,” de Lima tweeted.

“Colanggo is actually savoring every moment of his role in this charade, while showing his handlers that his performance is worth every bribe and privilege that they promised him,” she said.

De Lima was detained at the Philippine National Police Custodial Center in Metro Manila in 2017 over three charges of conspiracy to commit drug trading inside the national penitentiary when she served as justice secretary from 2010 to 2016. She was acquitted on one of the three charges in 2021 but could not be released because of the pending cases.

De Lima drew Duterte’s ire after investigating alleged human rights abuses linked to the killings of drug suspects during his stint as Davao City mayor and later as president.

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