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Philippine court clears fierce Duterte critic of drugs charges after long legal battle and six years of police custody

By Kathleen Magramo, CNN

(CNN) — A Philippine court has dropped drugs charges against one of the most vocal critics of former President Rodrigo Duterte’s bloody “war on drugs,” ending a long legal battle that had seen the former senator held for more than six years in police custody.

Opposition figure Leila De Lima, who was released on bail last November after she was acquitted of two counts, was cleared of a third and final charge on Monday, her lawyer told state broadcaster PTV.

The charges stemmed from allegations by Duterte that De Lima had received payoffs from convicted drug gangs to fund her 2016 senatorial bid.

More than 6,000 people were killed in anti-drug operations during Duterte’s tenure as president from 2016 to 2022, according to police data. Many of the extrajudicial killings of suspected drug offenders took place in the poorest areas of the country – and independent monitors believe the number of those killed could be much higher.

Human rights activists had long criticized De Lima’s prosecution and lengthy detention, pointing out that she was held in a police cell despite not having been convicted of any charges.

They say her treatment is emblematic of a deteriorating rights situation in a country where political activists and the media often face threats, harassment and even death for attempting to keep those in power in check.

On Monday, supporters who gathered outside the courthouse in Muntinlupa city shouted, “Leila is free,” according to a livestreamed video posted on her official Facebook page.

Speaking to reporters outside the court, De Lima said Duterte would be held responsible for “sins committed” against Filipinos.

“I’m only one of the victims. Thousands of Filipinos were murdered during the bloody and fake ‘drug war.’ Many families lost loved ones,” she said.

“For those who weren’t killed, they were left languishing in jail because of the incorrect and twisted enforcement of the law. I’m one of those who have experienced unjust imprisonment.”

During his tenure as president, Duterte repeatedly said the killings of drug suspects are lawful if police are acting in self defense. He had previously admitted to killing drug suspects during his time as mayor of Davao City.

In July last year, the International Criminal Court (ICC) rejected an appeal by the Philippine government to block an investigation by prosecutors into Duterte’s drug war.

An ICC judge said the dismissal by the Hague-based court meant the Philippines has exhausted its options to appeal.

Duterte’s administration and its successor under President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. have pushed back against the ICC’s probe, denouncing the investigations as unjust.

The Philippines was formerly a signatory to the ICC but Duterte canceled the country’s membership after the court began probing his drug war.

But under the ICC’s withdrawal mechanism, the court keeps jurisdiction over crimes committed during the membership period of a state – in this case, between 2016 and 2019, when the Philippines’ pullout became official.

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