- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Filipino Sen. Leila de Lima, an outspoken critic of firebrand populist President Rodrigo Duterte, has been in jail since February, but that hasn’t stopped her crusade to draw attention to what she calls “flagrant” rights abuses being carried out by the government in Manila.

Ferdie Maglalang, a member of the senator’s staff, was in Washington this week to drum up support for her cause and the need for greater outside pressure on the Duterte government.

“What we really need is an influential U.S. senator or congressman to speak out on the worsening human rights situation in the Philippines and about the plight of Senator de Lima herself,” Mr. Maglalang said in an interview Wednesday.

While the London-based Amnesty International has called Mrs. de Lima’s imprisonment “a blatant attempt” to “silence” a Duterte critic and draw attention away from the government’s brutal crackdown on illegal drug dealers, the senator’s case has received only scant U.S. attention despite dragging on for months without trial.

Mr. Maglalang and other staffers are holding a rush of meetings on Capitol Hill this week after attending an event at Foreign Policy magazine, which included Mrs. de Lima — for the second year running — in its list of influential “Global Thinkers.”

President Trump made headlines on a visit to the Philippines last month by avoiding any mention of human rights or Mr. Duterte’s bare-knuckle drug war — despite strong criticism of the campaign during former President Obama’s final months in office.

Following a Trump-Duterte meeting, the White House said a human rights had come up “briefly.” But The Associated Press reported a summary put out by a Duterte spokesman contended there “was no mention of human rights” in the meeting.

Mr. Maglalang told The Washington Times on Wednesday that he had no interest in criticizing Mr. Trump or his visit to Manila. “We believe the U.S. has a positive impact on addressing the human rights situation in the Philippines,” he said.

But Mr. Duterte’s tactics in the drug war have alarmed human rights advocates, who say it has allowed Filipino police and armed vigilantes to ignore due process and to take justice into their own hands. Official figures show more than 3,000 people, mostly drug users and dealers, have died. But rights groups put the victim total far higher, perhaps as high as 12,000.

Mr. Maglalang said he believes the actual figure is probably about 10,000. But he said an equally disturbing factor is the government’s attempt to silence civil society and political opposition figures who have spoken out against “these extrajudicial killings.”

Mr. Duterte, meanwhile, has appeared to encourage violent vigilantism by bragging that he’s personally killed criminal suspects in the past.

Mrs. de Lima has long been one of his leading critics. As a former justice minister, she spent years investigating the president’s alleged connection to a “death squad” when he was the mayor of a southern Philippine city.

The senator claims Mr. Duterte began seeking retribution against her when he became president, launching launched biting personal attacks. He claimed at one point her probes into his past and his drug war policy were motivated by a sexual affair she’d once had with her driver — a man Mr. Duterte claims took money from drug lords.

But Mrs. de Lima has refused to back down, accusing Mr. Duterte of overseeing the “massacre of civilians.”

“This is what happens when a sociopath takes over the reins of government in a major developing country of the world,” the senator said at one point last year.

The government in February accused Ms. de Lima herself of being a drug dealer. While the government more recently changed the charges to conspiracy to trade in drugs, the lawmaker has languished in prison for the past 10 months.

“She’s an example of political persecution because she’s been very vocal against President Duterte’s policy,” Mr. Maglalang said Wednesday.

Mrs. de Lima “has maintained her innocence since day one and is not giving up,” he added.

“She’s is a democratically elected legislator and a defender of freedom,” Mr. Maglalang said. ” … She’s a prisoner of conscience.”

“We look up to America,” he said. “Someone in America, a beacon of freedom and justice, should be speaking out about this.”

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