Manila: Jailed Philippine human rights campaigner Leila de Lima was "triumphant" on Monday after a judge granted her bail, putting her a step closer to freedom after nearly seven years behind bars.
De Lima, one of the most outspoken critics of former president Rodrigo Duterte and his deadly anti-drug war, was jailed on narcotics-related charges she says were fabricated to silence her.
The former senator, justice minister and human rights commissioner waved to supporters as she exited the Manila court, surrounded by police officers and journalists.
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"This is a moment of triumphant joy and also thanksgiving," de Lima said before boarding a minibus to be taken back to prison.
"I've been praying so hard for this day to come. It's very painful to be jailed despite being innocent."
Her lawyer, Filibon Tacardon, said de Lima "cried" when the decision was announced in the court.
"We expected the bail solely because of the merits of the case," Tacardon told reporters.
"We believe that she's innocent - we all believe that she's innocent and all these charges are trumped up."
De Lima, 64, is accused of taking money from inmates inside the largest prison in the Philippines to allow them to sell drugs while she was justice minister from 2010 to 2015.
Multiple witnesses, including prison gang bosses, died or recanted their testimonies, resulting in the dismissal of two of the three charges against de Lima.
She still faces life in prison if convicted on the remaining charge.
In a decision dated November 10, Judge Gener Gito allowed de Lima and her four surviving co-accused to post bail of 300,000 pesos ($5,350) each.
It was not immediately clear when de Lima would walk free from the national police headquarters where she has been held in a compound for high-profile detainees, rather than one of the country's overcrowded prisons.
Tacardon said he hoped it would be later Monday.
Unjustly prosecuted and detained
Since President Ferdinand Marcos came into office in June 2022 there have been renewed calls from human rights groups, foreign diplomats and politicians for de Lima's release.
Rights groups welcomed the bail decision.
"She never should have been unjustly prosecuted and detained by former President Rodrigo Duterte," Human Rights Watch deputy Asia director Bryony Lau said.
Lau said Duterte's administration "concocted evidence and used the machinery of an abusive state to punish her for performing her duties as a senator and speaking out against the 'war on drugs'."
Amnesty International called for the last remaining drug charge to be "dismissed expeditiously" and those behind her detention "be brought to justice".
Before her arrest on February 24, 2017, de Lima had spent a decade investigating "death squad" killings allegedly orchestrated by Duterte during his time as Davao City mayor and in the early days of his presidency.
She conducted the probes while serving as the nation's human rights commissioner, and then from 2010 to 2015 as justice minister in the Aquino administration that preceded Duterte's rule.
After winning a Senate seat in the 2016 elections that also swept populist Duterte to power, de Lima became one of the few opposition voices.
Duterte then accused her of running a drug trafficking ring with criminals when she was justice secretary, forcing her from the Senate and into a jail cell.
De Lima lost her bid for re-election in May 2022 after campaigning from behind bars.
Duterte, who was constitutionally barred from seeking a second term as president, stepped down the following month.
While in jail de Lima has suffered various health problems, including a pelvic organ prolapse that required surgery.
In October 2022, she was briefly taken hostage during an attempted breakout by three detained militants.
Throughout the legal proceedings, de Lima has insisted the charges against her had been trumped up in retaliation for going after Duterte and his drug war that killed thousands of people.
"What is more important is the end result that Senator Leila de Lima will get the justice she rightfully deserved," Tacardon said Monday.