MANILA — A Philippine senator who had been the leading domestic critic of President Rodrigo Duterte and his bloody anti drug campaign was arrested Friday on charges that she took bribes from imprisoned drug traffickers.
The senator, Leila de Lima, has denied the charges, describing them as political persecution. A Philippine court ordered her arrest on Thursday, and she went home Thursday night to say goodbye to her family.
Speaking to journalists on Friday before she was led away, Ms. de Lima was combative. “These are all lies,” she said of the charges. “The truth will come out at the right time. If they think they can stop me from fighting these daily murders, they are wrong.”
Ms. de Lima has been a fierce opponent of Mr. Duterte’s crackdown on users and sellers of narcotics, under which thousands of people have been killed by the police or by vigilantes since Mr. Duterte took office in June. Last year, a Senate panel led by Ms. de Lima heard testimony from a professed hit man, Edgar Matobato, who said he belonged to a death squad that had been overseen by Mr. Duterte when Mr. Duterte was mayor of Davao City.
Soon after that testimony, Ms. de Lima was removed from her post as chairwoman of the Senate panel. Another committee, in the Philippine House of Representatives, soon began hearings at which imprisoned drug kingpins testified that they had given Ms. de Lima bribes through her driver and bodyguard, Ronnie Dayan. Mr. Dayan testified that he had collected the money on the senator’s behalf.
Embarrassing details of a romantic affair between Mr. Dayan and Ms. de Lima were also disclosed at the hearings, in what the senator called part of a campaign by the Duterte administration to harass and silence her.
The charges against Ms. de Lima were brought by the Philippine Justice Department, which is headed by Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II, a fraternity brother of Mr. Duterte who presided over the House hearings. The Justice Department says that Ms. de Lima used the drug money for her Senate campaign last year, and that the inmates who gave it to her received special privileges in return.
Mr. Duterte’s chief legal adviser, Salvador Panelo, said Thursday that “the law of karma finally caught up” with Ms. de Lima.
“She should welcome this development herself, as she is now given the opportunity to refute any and all the allegations and/or evidence to be presented by the prosecution against her,” Mr. Panelo said. “This is where the real battle begins, and not in the media that she relishes to use against the president.”
Ms. de Lima’s opposition Liberal Party said her case should have been handled by an anti-corruption court that hears accusations against government officials, not by the regular trial court that issued the warrant.
“The haste is deplorable,” the party said in a statement. “This arrest is purely a political vendetta and has no place in a justice system that upholds the rule of law.”
The party also said that it feared for Ms. de Lima’s life, noting that a mayor whom Mr. Duterte accused last year of drug trafficking was gunned down in his jail cell by police officers, who later said the mayor had pulled a gun during a search.
Ms. de Lima’s arrest came just days after a retired police officer said that he had led the death squad in Davao that Mr. Matobato described in his testimony last year, and that he had acted on the direct orders of the mayor, Mr. Duterte. A presidential spokesman denied the accusation.