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Unbeaten, unbowed: Leila de Lima marks six years in detention



Manila, Philippines – For the past six years, Leila de Lima has been detained in the Philippine National Police headquarters, where she has endured the isolation of a global pandemic, been taken hostage during an attempted prison break, and mourned the death of several stray cats that she adopted as her pets and companions.

But she remains defiant.

“I will not give the chief oppressor the satisfaction of being beaten,” de Lima, 63, told Al Jazeera in an interview, referring to former President Rodrigo Duterte.

The former senator has always been an outspoken critic of Duterte and his state-sanctioned crackdown on illegal drugs that rights groups say left thousands of, mostly poor, young men dead.


She found herself detained shortly after announcing a Senate investigation into the drug war. Accused of taking drug money while she was justice secretary, de Lima was arrested on non-bailable charges and placed in police custody in Manila.

Now, de Lima’s defiance is marked by a calm optimism. Dressed in a bright pink blouse, beige trousers, with a light pink scarf around her neck and a small cross wrapped around a handkerchief in her palm, the former senator exudes determined hopefulness — with good reason.

As Duterte wrapped up his term last year, key witnesses began retracting testimony they had made against her.

Last April, self-confessed druglord Kerwin Espinosa issued an affidavit and apology saying that his statements against de Lima were the result of “pressure, coercion, intimidation and serious threats to his life and his family”.

Later, prosecution witness Rafael Ragos, who was an officer-in-charge of the Bureau of Corrections in 2012, also retracted earlier court testimony in which he said he had delivered money from drug lords to de Lima. Ragos claimed that his testimony was “false” and coerced by Duterte’s justice secretary Vitaliano Aguirre.

Speaking to Al Jazeera, Aguirre dismissed the allegations against him as “trash” and cast doubt on Ragos’s motives. “He already testified against her eight or nine times, even on national television. Then he suddenly changes?”

“Nothing can destroy the strength of the evidence. Our case against de Lima will not crumble,” Aguirre insisted.

New bail petition

The witnesses’ retractions of their testimony are both validation and vindication for de Lima. In a 2020 interview with Al Jazeera, de Lima called the charges against her “bulls***” and expressed doubt that she could ever get a fair trial while Duterte was in office.

“I have forgiven them already. But I will never forgive the chief oppressor — maybe just not yet. But I will never forget,” she said.

Leila de Lima’s supporters continue to call for her release, holding a mass last week at the EDSA Shrine in Manila, Philippines [Jam Sta Rosa/AFP]

“This [witness retractions] supports our narrative that the witnesses were bribed, coerced, or pressured and that the charges against de Lima are manufactured,” said Filibon Tacardon, a lawyer for de Lima.

With Ragos’s testimony retracted, de Lima’s defence team can now petition for bail, pending resolution of the case. A previous petition for bail was denied in June 2020.

De Lima’s detention and the bloody crackdown on illegal narcotics continue to be condemned by multiple human rights groups and foreign governments.

Diplomatic relations between the Philippines and the United States and Europe became strained as the country’s human rights track record dramatically deteriorated during Duterte’s six years in power.

In 2019, the US passed a resolution invoking the Global Magnitsky Act, demanding de Lima’s release and those responsible for her detention to be banned from entering the US.

Last year, the European Parliament warned that it might withdraw trade privileges with the European Union under the European Generalized Scheme of Preference Plus (GSP+) because of the Philippines’s noncompliance with its human rights obligations.

More than 6,000 Philippine products benefit from the GSP+ arrangements, which include lower taxes on exports.

The GSP+ status of the Philippines will expire in 2023.

Earlier this month, supporters called on current president and son of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos Jr to release de Lima. Marcos Jr won the presidential election in May last year.

“Marcos Jr’s main agenda is to cleanse the Marcos name of its dark history. He may be more inclined to curry favour with the international community, unlike Duterte,” said Carlos Conde, senior researcher for Human Rights Watch (HRW).

In a state visit to Brussels last year, local media reported Marcos Jr to be sending signals to the international community that he “will comply with human rights standards”.

Personal grudge, political vendetta

De Lima first earned Duterte’s wrath in 2009 when she was head of the Commission on Human Rights in the Philippines and investigated drug-related killings in the southern city of Davao, where Duterte was mayor.

When he became president in 2016 and corpses of alleged drug dealers began turning up on the street, de Lima opened a Senate investigation to look into the killings, which she felt resembled the operations of the so-called Davao Death Squad.

Duterte unleashed a verbal tirade, relentlessly attacking de Lima and belittling her in his televised speeches.

His legislative allies exposed details of her personal life and intimate relationships. During a livestreamed hearing, her home address and cell phone number were read out loud. The ensuing harassment drove de Lima out of her home.

“It makes one wonder what kind of pleasure Duterte derived from the public torment and private detention he made de Lima go through all these years. It was a personal grudge that ran deep,” said HRW’s Conde.

Teresita Deles became close friends with de Lima when they both served as cabinet officials under a previous administration and “were the only two women in the security council”.

She and de Lima also shared a love for dance. “The two of us often started the group dancing during socials. We would invite the others to join, but it was usually only the women officials who would,” Deles said with a laugh.

When de Lima was arrested, Deles was a regular visitor. Apart from the friendship they shared, Deles said that what happened to de Lima “hit me in ways that I still have not gotten over”.

“First was the blatant attack on human rights defenders. When defenders themselves are under attack, where do you go? Then there was the very public attack on her womanhood and the Filipino people did not rise up,” said Deles, who began her career as a women’s rights activist.

“I thought the misogyny, that kind of public hatred and attack on women would never be accepted again. But people were even laughing. I thought to myself, ‘where did we go wrong?’” she added.

When lockdowns forced everyone into their homes, the two exchanged letters delivered by de Lima’s staff. Deles, 75, who is immunocompromised, visited de Lima last December and was happy to see her friend in high spirits.

“They never got to her soul. She has found her centre. She will be able to stand up to anyone and anything. We need her now more than ever,” said Deles.

Undeterred by her prolonged detention, de Lima hopes to return to human rights advocacy, starting with helping out in the International Criminal Court (ICC) investigation of the drug war.

But first, she wants to make up for lost time with her family, namely, her mother, who is in her 90s and suffering from dementia, and her two sons, Israel and Vincent.

Some have expressed worry that if she is granted release, she may find herself in danger.

But de Lima is unbowed. She shakes her head vehemently. “There is simply no substitute for freedom.”


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China, Russia face sanctions from US states now. That’s dangerous – Al Jazeera English



Sanctions have become all the rage in international politics. The United States and its allies are imposing them on rivals with increasing frequency and severity. And those rivals are reciprocating where they can.

Now, American states, too, are increasingly getting in on the act. And that’s bad news — for the world, and for US foreign policy. A much-publicised episode of a Chinese balloon entering US airspace seems to have created new energy for such restrictions and has led to legislation being proposed in at least 11 states.

On Wednesday, the South Carolina State Senate passed a bill barring ownership of land in the state by citizens of US geopolitical adversaries Russia, China, North Korea, Iran and Cuba. The bill’s top sponsor even compared a planned purchase of South Carolina land by a Chinese biomedical firm with the Trojan Horse plot of Greek mythology.


Meanwhile, Texas State Senator Lois Kolkhorst has proposed a similar law that has drawn strong condemnation on human rights grounds but has been defended by Greg Abbott, the state’s Republican governor. A simple reading of the original version of this bill would lead one to conclude that any individual who holds citizenship from any of the mentioned countries, or any firms which they own, would be barred from owning property. This would have included American citizens who hold dual citizenship. Since then, the language has been softened to protect dual citizens and permanent residents but not citizens of those countries residing in Texas on a visa.

Implementation of such language would impose new and unusual due diligence requirements on common land transactions. Meanwhile, creating special restrictions on various immigrant communities to own property poses human rights concerns.

Existing sanctions laws and Treasury Department designations already block leaders from those American adversaries from transferring money into the US or owning property in the country. Meanwhile, recently introduced federal legislation aims to ban US adversaries from purchasing large swaths of farmland in the US.

So why would a state engage in what is essentially a foreign policy and national security matter?

Why sanction?

On the one hand, some scholars see sanctions as often being a product of domestic politics, aimed at portraying muscle to the electorate, at times influenced by pressure groups such as “ethnic lobbies”. Those in this camp of scholars are more inclined to believe that sanctions are not particularly effective. If sanctions are for the satisfaction of domestic onlookers, they will not be designed and implemented with an eye towards efficacy and the security context.

Other scholars, however, argue that sanctions are indeed imposed due to a meaningful effort to address national security concerns.

Like many in the national security decision-making scholarship community, I feel both of these binary constructions frequently fail when confronted with the history of economic sanctions. The truth is that foreign policy choices are a product of complex national security matrices that accommodate both foreign policy and domestic political considerations.

Who sanctions?

Yet irrespective of one’s overall view on the efficacy of sanctions more broadly, it is hard for anyone to deny that policies against foreign nationals adopted by state governments can have little explanation other than domestic and even local politics.

In the US, the executive branch has always been best suited to make foreign policy decisions due to its clear mandate and wherewithal in this field. Congress has a constitutional role in foreign policy matters but it’s far more likely to be influenced by domestic political pressures and national anxieties.

The executive branch largely controlled sanctions policy throughout the Cold War era. But after the fall of the Soviet Union, as major threats to the homeland faded, Congressional and sub-federal forces became increasingly involved in this field.

While Congress has largely ceded its war power authority in the modern era, it has become more active in sanctioning due to an impulse of members to be seen as projecting power against American adversaries even when it interferes with the president’s efforts to engage in strategic policy.

What about state legislators and governors? They have no real national security staff nor the relevant mandate, as their elections almost always lack any meaningful foreign policy discussion and are decided based on provincial issues, whether taxes or abortion rights.

Yet their meddling in foreign policy isn’t superfluous — it can actually be reckless, for global diplomacy and for US foreign policy. Here’s how.

The folly of state sanctions

As written, the mentioned measures are unlikely to meaningfully interfere with the federal government’s ability to carry out its foreign policy. But one can imagine a scenario in which sanctions imposed by states do just that.

New York state and California preside over major nodes of the global banking community and the international technology supply chain. Texas itself is a major player in global energy markets. Other states can wield a more narrow version of such powers as well.

There are already examples of when New York State has targeted European firms for their perceived violation of sanctions, ignoring objections at the federal level. States can, as the federal government has often done, impose restrictions on firms operating in their jurisdiction in a way that has extraterritorial consequences.

This in turn sets up a precarious dynamic. The federal government might have to mollify or negotiate with state governments led by ambitious politicians responding to special interests or catering to local constituencies.

Equally, state governments of the party in opposition can actively undercut diplomatic efforts of the federal government using such sanctions. For example, a federal effort to ease sanctions on Cuba could create political momentum for state sanctions in Florida, where families of those who fled communist rule are a powerful lobby.

Ultimately, sanctions are a tool of foreign policy and the capacity to modulate or even repeal them is critical to accomplishing the political goals behind sanctions campaigns. For the president or Congress to have to lobby with state governments, each representing a fraction of the overall population, to alter America’s sanctions against a country would represent a bizarre new obstacle to the federal government’s ability to carry out its foreign policy obligations.

The proposed Texas and South Carolina laws are textbook examples of sanctions as political grandstanding meant for domestic consumption. They are also a reminder of the jingoistic zeal that can be nurtured and exploited by foreign policy amateurs at the state level.

As we embark upon what scholar Peter A G van Bergeijk calls the “second wave” of global sanctions, states will likely look further to getting in on the act with human rights and global affairs.

Washington’s basic ability to carry out a coherent foreign policy hangs in the balance.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

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'I like your teams, except the Leafs': Biden addresses Parliament –



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Beijing denies meddling after MP Han Dong’s resignation from Liberal caucus



OTTAWA — Beijing says it has nothing to say about ongoing allegations that China has meddled in Canadian affairs, including those regarding a member of Parliament who has left the Liberal caucus.

Han Dong is now sitting as an Independent as the Liberal government has a rapporteur investigate claims of Chinese interference, including allegations the Toronto MP willingly received electoral support through Chinese officials.

Dong resigned from the Liberal caucus Wednesday night after Global News, citing unnamed security sources, published a report alleging that he spoke about Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig with a Chinese diplomat in Toronto in February 2021.

The MP says he met with the diplomat but disputes any suggestion that he urged China to delay releasing the two Canadian men, who by that point had been detained for more than two years.


Dong told the House of Commons he would defend himself “against these absolutely untrue claims” and that he did nothing to cause Spavor and Kovrig any harm.

Asked about Dong’s resignation at a press conference today in Beijing, a spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry says “the Canadian side may be in a better position” to comment, and that “China opposes interference in other countries’ internal affairs.”

He adds that this applies to broader allegations about Chinese interference.

“We have no interest in and will not interfere in Canada’s internal affairs,” Wang Wenbin said in the official English transcript. “There should be no irresponsible comments on this.”

China’s detention of the men who became known around the world as the “two Michaels” occurred in apparent retaliation for the December 2018 arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver on a U.S. extradition warrant.

Beijing has insisted the cases are not linked, despite a close alignment in the timing of each being detained and then released the same day in September 2021.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 23, 2023.


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