Free Leila de Lima!

Yesterday, the Committee for the Freedom of Leila M. De Lima (“Free Leila Committee”), was launched in Club Filipino, San Juan Manila. The Committee is a non- government and non-partisan group of independent-minded individuals, who have come together to work for the unconditional release from detention of Senator Leila De Lima. Composed of human rights and former senator Rene Saguisag, columnist and professor Winnie Monsod, civil society leader and former presidential peace adviser  Ging Deles, and educator and former education secretary Armin Luisitro, and myself, we believe collectively that Senator De Lima is a political prisoner, detained illegally by the Duterte administration as declared by the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention.

We echo the conclusion of that international body  that Senator De Lima’s deprivation of liberty is a consequence of her personal conviction and public statements regarding extrajudicial killings in the Philippines.  According to the Working Group, De Lima’s statements on the widespread and systematic campaign of extrajudicial killings in the context of the war on drugs have triggered measures of reprisals against her that included a criminal investigation conducted by the Department of Justice and her detention. Moreover, she has been subjected to detention as a result of the exercise of her right to take part in government and the conduct of public affairs, rights guaranteed under Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 25 of the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

This is why the Free Leila Committee strongly emphasizes that De Lima is a political prisoner and acknowledged as such by the UN Working Group who observed that her  political views and convictions are clearly at the center of the case and that the authorities have displayed an attitude towards her that can only be characterized as targeted and discriminatory. Indeed, she has been the target of partisan persecution and there is no explanation for this other than her exercise of the right to express such views and convictions as a human rights defender.

The Working Group also expressed its grave concerns about the unfavorable remarks made publicly by the President and his allies against her after she expressed her intention to investigate the extrajudicial killings under the so-called war on drugs.

The ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) and the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats (CALD), has also concluded that Senator De Lima is being politically persecuted. Meeting on the occasion of the 40th General Assembly of the ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Assembly (AIPA) in Bangkok, Thailand on 25-30 August 2019, the parliamentarians emphasized the worsening state of democracy, human rights and the rule of law in the Asian region and worldwide, and acknowledged that one facet of this ongoing democratic recession, and the corresponding rise in authoritarianism and populism, is the continuing and intensifying repression of democratically elected political opposition. According to them, we have seen the rise of many cases where the political opposition is harassed and restricted solely for carrying out its legitimate work.

This harassment of the political opposition is most evident in countries like Cambodia and the Philippines. For the latter, APHR and CALD point out that how, several lawmakers who have opposed the President’s campaign against illegal drugs and other key government policies, have faced politically-motivated criminal charges, harassment, threats and intimidation. Foremost among them is Senator De Lima and the parliamentarians unequivocally call for her release.

The Free Leila Committee will be expanding its ranks domestically and internationally. We will explore all avenues for this advocacy.

While we are for the unconditional release of Senator De Lima, we also support the bipartisan effort of Senators Franklin Drilon and Panfilo Lacson to allow the detained senator to participate in plenary sessions electronically, with the use of telecommunication technologies.

In the same spirit, we are with former senators who have collectively sign a statement to support to the Drilon-Lacson  proposed Senate resolution.

Currently, Senator De Lima is the Chair of the Senate Committee on Social Justice, Welfare and Rural Development, and a member of 23 other committees. During the last Congress, despite her detention, she was able to author 138 resolutions and 116 bills, some of which have even become significant laws. The fact of her detention however prevents her from being personally present in the sessions, meetings and hearings at the Senate.

De Lima is a Senator of the Republic of the Philippines and a member of the 17th and 18th Congress.  Despite her detention for more than two (2) years and five (5) months now, she is able to introduce a good number of resolutions and bills, some of which have become significant laws, including pieces of social legislation on Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program (4Ps), Magna Carta of the Poor, and the National Commission of Senior Citizens.

Our former senators point out in their collective statement: “While Senator De Lima is a mere detention prisoner enjoying the Constitutional presumption of innocence, as well as all civil and political rights, the fact of her incarceration has unfortunately prevented her from fully performing her duties to participate in the legislative process, including attendance in the plenary sessions, voting on bills and resolutions, presence in important meetings and caucuses with her colleagues, and conduct of hearings of the committees that she chairs. As former Senators, we know the importance of taking part in all these vital aspects of lawmaking.”

The former senators  support all initiatives to enable Senator De Lima to vote on key bills and resolutions tabled in the plenary sessions, to participate in important meetings and caucuses with her fellow Senators, and to personally conduct public hearings of her committee within Camp Crame in Quezon City.  Accoding to them:

“We hope that relevant authorities will take the necessary steps, including possible adjustments in parliamentary rules and the regulations in the custodial center, with provision for necessary facilities and other appropriate arrangements, to address these matters for as long as Senator De Lima remains in detention while a member of the Philippine Senate. If needed, measures should likewise be taken to secure permission from the courts to allow her to personally participate during important sessions, meetings and hearings at the Senate.

To allow Senator De Lima the full discharge of her role and duty as a parliamentarian is to pay respect to the mandate of more than 14 million Filipinos who voted her into office in keeping with the spirit and tradition of the Philippine Senate as a collegial and deliberative body.”

We launched the Committee yesterday because it was National Heroes Day. And we believe Leila De Lima is a heroine of democracy and human rights.

Today, Augist 27, is her 60th birthday. We want to tell her that she is not forgotten, that she will be free soon, to see her beloved mother and family anytime she wishes, and  to do her work for the country without impediment. When that happens, I will be at the gates of Crame to greet and welcome her: “Senadora Leila, malaya ka na!” (“Senator Leila , you are free!)

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