MANILA, Philippines (AP) — The Philippines' former justice secretary, a senator and prominent critic of President Rodrigo Duterte's deadly anti-drug crackdown, was charged Friday by prosecutors accusing her of receiving bribes from detained drug lords.
Sen. Leila de Lima denied the charges and characterized the case as "political persecution." When she was a top human rights official, de Lima tried unsuccessfully to have Duterte prosecuted when he was still a city mayor for unlawful deaths occurring during his deadly anti-drug crackdown.
Duterte expanded the crackdown nationwide after becoming president in June, and de Lima has continued to criticize him since she became a senator last year.
Thousands of mostly suspected drug users and small-time drug peddlers have died since then, and human rights groups have urged independent investigations of whether some of those killed were victims of state-sanctioned extrajudicial killings. Duterte and other officials say those killed by policemen fought back and the government will never countenance unlawful killings.
Current Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II, said prosecutors filed three charges against Lima and several other people for involvement in an illegal drugs trade in the national penitentiary in violation of a 2002 anti-illegal drugs law.
"This is not the product of politics, this is the product of drug trading," Aguirre said in a news conference.
Prosecutors alleged de Lima, while she was justice secretary under President Benigno Aquino, received huge bribes from detained drug lords to finance her senatorial campaign last year, and they say some of the drug lords would testify against her. The bribes were allegedly solicited by her former driver and lover, who was also charged.
Duterte has lashed at de Lima with foul language, calling the senator a sex-crazed immoral woman whose election opened "the portals of the national government ... to narco politics."
De Lima has staunchly denied the charges and said her lawyers were ready.
"If the loss of my freedom is the price I have to pay for standing up against the butchery of the Duterte regime, then it is a price I am willing to pay," de Lima said in a statement. "But they are mistaken if they think my fight ends here. It has only begun."
She also said the case against her might be the "wakeup call" the country needs, alluding to an absence of public outcry inside the country over the drug killings. "Despite these fascist methods employed by this fascist regime, we will continue to fight this battle and wage our own war for human rights and democracy," she said.
Presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella said de Lima "will be accorded due process and answer in the proper forum."
Judges who will handle the three criminal cases will be chosen Monday in a raffle and those selected may issue warrants for her arrest if they assess that strong evidence against her exists.
De Lima's political followers said in a news conference they would not leave the senator if she was arrested and called on "every patriotic and concerned Filipino to stand with us against all forms of persecution and intimidation."