HUMAN Rights Watch on Wednesday urged the Philippine government to free an opposition senator on trial for drug trafficking after two key witnesses claimed to have been coerced by authorities into implicating her.

“Senator Leila de Lima has suffered five years in detention for an alleged crime that key witnesses now dispute,” Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. 

“The authorities should immediately drop the politically motivated charges and release her, and impartially investigate the witnesses’ claims that they were coerced to give false testimony,” he added.

Ms. De Lima, one of President Rodrigo R. Duterte’s most outspoken critics, has been in jail since Feb. 2017 for allegedly receiving money from drug lords while serving as Justice secretary in 2012. She has denied the charges.

In a four-page affidavit dated April 30, former Bureau of Corrections Director General and ex-National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) Deputy Director Rafael Z. Ragos took back his allegations that Ms. De Lima received P5 million in drug money from him — care of convicted drug lord Peter Co — when she was still Justice secretary in 2012. She allegedly used the fund to finance her senatorial bid in 2016. 

Ms. De Lima said the Justice department’s decision to keep her in jail is dubious. “Once they lose the moral certainty to have me convicted beyond reasonable doubt, it is their duty to withdraw the cases,” she said in a statement on Tuesday.

“There are many things questionable about the cases against me. The recantation of witnesses is not one of them. If anything, this is the only thing that makes sense: It’s proof that the truth will always come out,” she added.

Presidential spokesman Jose Martin M. Andanar said the courts should decide Ms. De Lima’s fate. “It is in the courts right now, let us simply let the law run its course,” he told a news briefing.

Self-confessed drug lord Kerwin Espinosa has also retracted his testimonies implicating Ms. De Lima, saying the police had coerced him to testify against the senator during Senate hearings investigating the country’s illegal drug trade.

One of the three drug charges against Ms. De Lima has been dismissed. Two are pending in court.

“Senator De Lima should be included among the casualties of President Duterte’s catastrophic ‘drug war,’” Mr. Robertson said. “The senator’s imprisonment is among the low points of Duterte’s presidency, and the thousands of families still suffering from his punitive policies would doubtlessly welcome her release.”

Tens of thousands of drug suspects have died in police anti-drug operations, many of them allegedly killed after resisting arrest, according to the United Nations. At least 122 children were killed in the government’s deadly drug war between July 2016 and Dec. 2019, according to the World Organization Against Torture. 

In 2018, Mr. Duterte said extrajudicial murders happened under his administration’s drug war. The Philippine Commission on Human Rights has said the state was violating human rights for failing to stop police abuse. 

The International Criminal Court (ICC) has ordered an investigation of Mr. Duterte’s crackdown on illegal drugs, as it found “reasonable basis” that crimes against humanity might have been committed.

Meanwhile, former Justice Secretary Vitaliano N. Aguirre II denied Mr. Ragos’s claim that he had coerced him to testify against Ms. De Lima.

“I was genuinely surprised at the statement of Mr. Rafael R. Ragos that I coerced him to execute affidavits involving Senator Leila de Lima in the drug trade in the Bilibid prisons,” he said in a statement. “I was never involved in any efforts to coerce him.”

Mr. Ragos earlier said Mr. Aguirre had forced him to testify against Ms. De Lima or risk imprisonment.

Mr. Aguirre said he had left the Justice department in 2018, a year before Mr. Ragos testified in court.

Mr. Espinosa separately affirmed that police had forced him to implicate the senator during Senate hearings investigating the illegal drug trade inside the national jail when she was still Justice secretary.

Ms. De Lima in a statement on Monday noted that despite being five years too late, the retractions have affirmed her innocence.

Political and human rights experts have said that the retractions of the two witnesses showed how the country’s justice system could be easily abused.

The European Commission in October said it was closely monitoring political developments in the Philippines after flagging “serious concerns” about the country’s human rights situation.

The body is engaging with the Philippines through political and technical dialogue backed by “rigorous analysis” of the situation on the ground, said a spokesman for the commission who asked not to be named.

The European Parliament in 2020 asked the commission to start the process of withdrawing trade incentives from the Philippines after the government failed to improve the country’s human rights situation.  — Alyssa Nicole O. Tan and John Victor D. Ordoñez