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Top critic of Duterte's anti-drug crusade charged with receiving bribes from dealers

Sen. Leila de Lima, one of the most vocal critics of President Duterte and his anti-drug crackdown, has been charged by Department of Justice with receiving bribes from detained drug lords.

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, on Feb. 23, 2017.
Romeo Ranoco/Reuters
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Philippine Sen. Leila de Lima has been one of the harshest critics of President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs. Now, she herself has been charged with receiving bribes from drug dealers.

Senator de Lima has announced that she will submit to arrest and face the charges. But she denies them as a "politically motivated act," according to Reuters. "This is the kind of vindictive politics that we only expect from this regime," she added.

The charges represent the latest twist in a bloody drug war that President Duterte has pursued since taking office in June, despite the objections of domestic critics like de Lima and international human rights observers.

During his more than 20 years as mayor of Davao City, split across three different periods, Mr. Duterte gained a reputation for being tough on crime – a reputation he relished.

"In Davao, I used to do it personally. Just to show to the guys that, if I can do it, why can't you?" he told business leaders at a meeting in December of killing criminal suspects. "I'd go around in Davao with a motorcycle, with a big bike around and I would just patrol the streets and looking for trouble also. I was really looking for a confrontation, so I could kill."

Critics say that that mindset has been all too clear since Duterte won election to the country’s presidency on a promise to wipe out the drug trade. Since then, about 7,700 people have been killed in the narcotics crackdown, according to Reuters.  

About 2,500 of those deaths have been in police operations; human rights advocates allege that many of the remaining thousands were killed by vigilantes working with the police. 

De Lima headed the Senate Committee on Justice and Human Rights, which was investigating these extrajudicial killings. In September, she was replaced by an ally of Duterte, who promptly scrapped the investigation.

Around the same time, Duterte began directing sordid comments towards de Lima in public. Now, the criminal charges allege that she received a total of about five million pesos (about $100,000) in bribes from drug dealers to finance her Senate campaign. She is also accused of allowing a convicted felon to run a large drug trading business from prison. 

De Leila has vociferously denied these charges. She says they were based on testimony from high-profile inmates who were enjoying a lavish lifestyle at the country’s New Bilibid maximum-security prison – a lifestyle she exposed by ordering a raid there as Justice Secretary.

In a statement, she accused Duterte of trying to "clamp down on any vocal opposition to a policy of extrajudicial killing."

Last October, even as his drug war drew international condemnation, 83 percent of Filipinos said they had “much trust” in the president – although some commentators doubt whether his popularity is really that strong.

This report includes material from Reuters and the Associated Press.