SEN. Leila Magistrado de Lima marked on Feb. 24, 2021 four years of odious solitary imprisonment at the PNP Custodial Center in Camp Crame under patently contrived and politically motivated drug charges.

Her only sin is fearlessly and conscientiously criticizing President Rodrigo Duterte’s bloody war on drugs, leading to her interminable detention at his behest.

Her malevolent incarceration makes her a candidate for “sainthood” with President Duterte playing the role of a self-appointed “devil’s advocate.”

In the past, one was canonized only after testimonials on his or her venerable life surmounted the spirited opposition of the Vatican-appointed devil’s advocate tasked to expose the candidate’s character flaws.

Many saints were prisoners in their lifetime, sainted not because they were imprisoned, but for their indomitable courage, steadfast advocacy and enduring faith. One is St. Joan of Arc, patroness and national heroine of France. Although she led French soldiers against English invaders, the French Inquisition branded her a heretic for which she was imprisoned and burned at the stake. Another is St. Thomas More, an English statesman and patron saint of lawyers, who was falsely imprisoned for treason and beheaded for refusing to support Henry 8th’s break from the Catholic Church.

In the midst of the ferocity of the devil’s advocate’s virulent tirades, ongoing vengeful prosecution and inordinately prolonged detention, de Lima has been “sainted” as one of the world’s prominent “imprisoned liberal heroes” by the Geneva Summits for Human Rights and Democracy in 2018 and 2019, named among the world’s “50 Greatest Leaders” by Fortune magazine, conferred the Liberal International’s 2018 “Prize for Freedom” award, and honored “Prisoner of Conscience” by Amnesty International.

The outpouring of international and local demands for her immediate release continues: the 2020 US Senate unanimous resolution calling for her freedom; the European Parliament’s three annual resolutions urging the Philippine government to release her and drop the politically motivated cases; the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention’s Opinion No. 61/2018 finding her incarceration arbitrary and contrary to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; and kindred resolutions from Human Rights Watch, Asian Parliamentarians for Human Rights, iDefend and Karapatan.

De Lima’s travails chronicle how one’s constitutional rights are sacrificed at the altar of official arrogance and vengeance.

She faces three prosecutions before the Regional Trial Court (RTC) of Muntinlupa City, and is uniformly charged with conspiracy to commit illegal drugs trade with high profile felons in the New Bilibid Prison wherein she purportedly used her position as then Justice secretary to extort contributions for her senatorial bid from the inmates who were authorized to sell illegal drugs.

De Lima has consistently denounced the accusations as fabricated and a wholesale canard.

The Constitution guarantees the accused fundamental rights. Foremost is “no person shall be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law.” Accordingly, no warrant of arrest “shall issue except upon probable cause to be determined personally by the judge” and the accused shall “be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation against him.”

Central to these is “the accused shall be presumed innocent until the contrary is proved.” Corollary to the presumption of innocence are the right to bail before conviction, “except those charged with offenses punishable by reclusion perpetua when evidence of guilt is strong,” and the right to “a speedy, impartial and public trial.”

These rights were waylaid by the vindictive and oppressive prosecution of de Lima. Prolonged detention without bail negates presumption of innocence as extended confinement amounts to imprisonment without conviction. Moreover, the evidence against her is based on affidavits/testimonies of drug convicts who have motives to fabricate tales.

While the majority of the Supreme Court by a vote of nine to six upheld in De Lima v Guerrero (Oct. 10, 2017) the validity of the information against de Lima and the legality of her arrest in the first case to reach the high court, the decision was expected because the petition was virtually a “De Lima vs Duterte,” and the President has not lost a case in the Supreme Court. The decision is strained and strange for disregarding settled doctrines and entrenched precedents, and placing undue premium on procedures over substantive law and constitutional safeguards.

Six senior justices dissented, while all the four Duterte appointees at that time joined the majority together with three justices whom Duterte subsequently appointed Chief Justices in succession.

The dissents held that the RTC has no jurisdiction since de Lima was accused of using her official position, making the offense solely cognizable by the Sandiganbayan, and because the information actually alleged direct bribery, which is also under the Sandiganbayan. Moreover, the information did not allege the identities of the seller and buyer, and the specification of the prohibited drug involved which is the corpus delicti. Consequently, the warrant of arrest was void ab initio because the respondent judge was bereft of jurisdiction, and no probable cause could be anchored on fatally deficient information.

It is not difficult to fathom why de Lima was charged with conspiracy to engage in illegal drugs trade where the grant of bail is discretionary, instead of direct bribery where bail is a matter of right.

The prosecution’s weakness in all the three cases has been unraveled with de Lima’s acquittal in one where her demurrer to evidence was granted by Judge Liezel Aquiatan. Evidently, de Lima must be granted bail in the two pending cases.

Verily, the country needs living heroes, not demised saints, albeit revered. Leila de Lima does not need a devil’s advocate. She deserves freedom, justice and dignity.

Rep. Lagman’s email address is [email protected].