By Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza, Reporter

FORMER SENATOR Leila M. de Lima, who was freed on bail after spending almost seven years on jail on drug trafficking charges, would probably be acquitted, according to the Philippine Justice secretary.

“Chances are she will be acquitted,” Justice Secretary Jesus Crispin C. Remulla told CNN Philippines on Wednesday.

“That is a very strong statement when you say the prosecution was unable to fulfill that burden of proof that is necessary for them to keep her in detention,” he added, citing the court’s bail ruling. “The iota of doubt is very high in the grant of bail.”

Mr. Remulla said drug trafficking is a nonbailable offense and bail is not usually granted unless the judge is convinced that the evidence is not strong.

“Once they are able to overtake this presumption of nonbailability and bail is granted, then the momentum is very much in favor of the defense.”

Mr. Remulla insists he has never interfered in the prosecution team’s affairs.

“We have really not interfered in the way they conduct the cases,” he said. “It is not for us to tell them what to do because it is something that they started a long time ago and they are the ones who built up the case that they filed.”

A Philippine trial court on Monday ordered the release on bail of Ms. De Lima, a former senator who was jailed in 2017 on drug charges that she said were fabricated to muzzle her investigation of Mr. Duterte’s anti-illegal drug campaign. 

In a 69-page order, Muntinlupa Judge Gener M. Gito reversed an earlier decision and granted Ms. De Lima’s request for bail while being tried in a final drug case.

Ms. De Lima “should be allowed to post bail as the prosecution was not able to discharge its burden of establishing that the guilt of the said accused is strong,” the judge said in the order dated Nov. 10.

Dennis Coronacion, chairman of the University of Santo Tomas Political Science Department, said Ms. De Lima’s release shows the Judiciary could function normally if it’s not manipulated by another government branch.

“That’s definitely a victory for the rule of law and the independence of the Judiciary,” he said via Messenger chat.

“Ex-Senator De Lima’s release signals that the Marcos administration will allow the judicial process in the case to be pursued and there will be less pressure on the judicial system to drag the case for long,” Randy P. Tuaño, dean of the Ateneo de Manila University School of Government, said via Messenger chat.

Ms. De Lima on Tuesday said she plans to seek justice for victims of ex-President Rodrigo R. Duterte’s deadly drug war.

“In whatever capacity, I am committed to do that because that has been my core advocacy,” she told OneNews Channel. “And that’s the reason in the first place why they did that to me. Because I initiated those investigations, they wanted to silence me.”

Ms. De Lima faced various charges in 2017 within months of launching a Senate inquiry into Mr. Duterte’s anti-illegal drug campaign, in which thousands of drug users and dealers were killed in police drug raids.

She incurred Mr. Duterte’s ire when, as chairwoman of the Commission on Human Rights, she started a probe in 2009 into extrajudicial killings by the so-called Davao Death Squad in the tough-talking leader’s hometown, where he was the long-time mayor. Mr. Duterte later vowed to “destroy” her.

Mr. Duterte’s drug war is now being investigated by the International Criminal Court for possible “crimes against humanity.”   

At least 6,117 suspected drug dealers were killed in police operations, according to data released by the Philippine government in June 2021. Human rights groups estimate that as many as 30,000 suspects died.

“Former Senator De Lima is clearly the tip of the spear in the fight for truth and justice for human rights victims under the Duterte administration,” Akbayan Party President Rafaela David said in a Facebook Messenger chat. “Now that she is free, she will play a pivotal role in uncovering the truth and in continuing the fight for justice for the victims of Duterte’s drug war.”

Akbayan called for the creation of a truth commission made up of legal and human rights experts to uncover and document the drug war killings. Ms. De Lima should be part of the body, she added.

“Senator De Lima’s participation in the proposed truth commission will not only strengthen our resolve to seek justice, but also inspire us with renewed hope that in the end, the truth shall prevail.”

The US State Department on Tuesday urged the government of President Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr. to “resolve the remaining case against her in a manner that is consistent with its international human rights obligations and commitments.”

Court proceedings against Ms. De Lima in the last six years have been marked by undue delays, “including the repeated failure of prosecution witnesses to appear in court and changes in judges handling the cases against her,” according to Amnesty International.

Richard Heydarian, a senior lecturer at the Asian Center of the University of the Philippines, said Mr. Marcos should appoint Ms. De Lima as head of a task force that will investigate the killings. “She was the pioneer after all as Commission on Human Rights chief,” he said in an X post.

Two of the three cases against Ms. De Lima have been dismissed and she had sought bail in the one pending case on health grounds.

Her first drug case was dismissed in 2021 and the Ombudsman cleared her of bribery charges for lack of evidence last year. Another Muntinlupa trial court in May acquitted Ms. De Lima and her former aide in the second drug trafficking case. The court said the recantation by a former prison director who had testified against her created reasonable doubt.