Philippine Senator Leila De Lima is pictured inside a police van after appearing at a Muntinlupa court on drug charges in Muntinlupa, Metro Manila, Philippines February 24, 2017. Photo: Erik De Castro/Reuters
Philippine Senator Leila De Lima is pictured inside a police van after appearing at a Muntinlupa court on drug charges in Muntinlupa, Metro Manila, Philippines February 24, 2017. Photo: Erik De Castro/Reuters

One of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s fiercest critics is now behind bars on drug charges, marking a political escalation of his anti-crime crackdown and opening a new chapter in his heavy-handed rule. Senator Leila de Lima was arrested on the morning of February 24, symbolically the day before the 31st anniversary of the People Power Revolution which ousted another Philippine strongman, Ferdinand Marcos.

De Lima is facing three drug charges filed by the Philippine Department of Justice, where she formerly served as secretary. A regional trial court found merit in the charges and issued a warrant for the lady senator’s arrest on February 23. Her lawyers and supporters denounced the legality of the arrest on the grounds it lacked solid evidence, based on testimony provided by convicted drug dealers, and jurisdiction.

The convicts-turned-witnesses are now reportedly enjoying prison perks in return for their testimony, according to press reports. De Lima’s lawyers filed a petition with the Supreme Court on Monday seeking a temporary restraining order on her arrest warrant. She was still being detained at the Camp Crame national police headquarters in Quezon City in late afternoon.

De Lima’s arrest came soon after the public confession of former death squad member and policeman Arturo Lascanas, who last week linked Duterte to a spate of extra-judicial killings in Davao City when he served as mayor. Lascanas will soon testify before the Senate’s Committee on Public Order and Dangerous Drugs with the support of a group of opposition senators. It is yet to be seen how de Lima’s absence will affect the hearings.

Philippine Senator Leila de Lima is escorted by the Senate’s security personnel after a Regional Trial Court (RTC) ordered her arrest, at the Senate headquarters in Pasay city, metro Manila, Philippines February 23, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Romeo Ranoco

The filing of drug charges against de Lima and her subsequent arrest appears to be the climactic act in the Duterte administration’s persecution of its most vocal and credible opponent. The feud has a long history, dating back to the time when de Lima was chairperson of the Commission on Human Rights and her time as Department of Justice Secretary under former President Benigno Aquino, when she sought to investigate Duterte’s alleged links to the Davao death squad.

According to Human Rights Watch, the Davao death squad was responsible for 1,424 recorded extrajudicial killings in the southern Philippine city where Duterte served as mayor and congressman for many years. Duterte has denied that the death squad existed and any role in the extrajudicial killings.

In August 2016, a few months into the new president’s term, Duterte accused de Lima of involvement in a drug-trafficking ring inside the national penitentiary to raise funds for her successful election campaign.

De Lima responded by having the Senate Committee on Justice and Human Rights, which she chaired at the time, to investigate Duterte’s involvement with the death squad. One of the star witnesses of the inquiry was self-confessed assassin Edgar Matobato, who divulged details of killings he had done for the death squad and also implicated Duterte.

The Duterte-de Lima confrontation whipped up public opinion, particularly in social media, with Duterte’s supporters gleefully applauding the tough-talking leader’s name-calling of the senator and cheering her arrest last Friday. Duterte, a trained lawyer, enjoys widespread popular support for his brash pronouncements and populist speeches. As de Lima awaited police officers to arrest her, she countered by saying she was proud to be the first “political prisoner” of the Duterte administration.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte supporters gather during a vigil backing the anti-drugs crackdown at the Luneta park in metro Manila, Philippines February 25, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Romeo Ranoco

Analysts speculate that de Lima’s arrest could be the first in a wider government crackdown against its vocal critics. Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre asked a huge crowd at a pro-Duterte rally on Saturday, “Who do you want to be jailed next?” to which the throng shouted back, “Trillanes”, reference to opposition senator Antonio Trillanes, one of Duterte’s sharpest critics.

Trillanes has claimed he was put on a “hit list” by Duterte last year and was supposed to be eliminated through a staged accident. He said the information came from ex-policeman Lascanas before his explosive expose last week.

“I was supposed to be the first [on the list], but they wanted me dead. They will not file cases against me but have me killed,” Trillanes said, who had before the elections in May last year had raised uncomfortable questions about Duterte’s personal wealth. He is also among those supporting Lascanas in his testimony. “Do what you want to do, I’m not fazed,” he said after the arrest of de Lima.

The developments unfolded as the Philippines marked the 31st anniversary of the People Power Revolution that toppled former dictator Marcos and opened the way for democracy. In his two decades’ reign, Marcos eliminated his political opponents and critics, incarcerated thousands and oversaw the torture and death of leftist activists, students, clergy, peasants and factory workers.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte attends the Asian Development Bank 50th anniversary celebration in Mandaluyong, Metro Manila, Philippines February 21, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Erik De Castro

Duterte is a sworn admirer of Marcos and is closely allied with his children, primarily Ilocos Norte governor Imee Marcos and Vice Presidential candidate Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr.  The People Power anniversary over the weekend saw the anti-Duterte and anti-Marcos groups mobilize at least 10,000 protesters at the historic stretch of Epifanio delos Santos Avenue (EDSA) in Quezon City, where 31 years before millions gathered in a four-day revolt that resulted in Marcos’ overthrow.

Dressed in black instead of the traditional yellow, well-known personalities who attended the rally included former President Benigno Aquino, who led a Liberal Party contingent and declared that “the fight is not yet over.” He used the Filipino word for “fight” (laban), which was also the name of his assassinated and martyred father Benigno Aquino Jr’s political party and a rally cry during the anti-Marcos protests.

Duterte supporters, meanwhile, gathered at Manila’s Rizal Park, erected for the nation’s independence leader. Though there were an estimated 200,000 supporters in attendance, the interior secretary later admitted that his office required local government officials to truck their constituents to the rally. With the EDSA Revolution as the backdrop, battle lines are now being drawn between the administration and the opposition, with observers now awaiting next moves and revelations.

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