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Top Philippine drug war critic dodges arrest

[MANILA] An arrest warrant was issued Thursday for the highest-profile opponent of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's deadly war on drugs, but she dodged police and sought refuge in the Senate.

The planned arrest of Senator Leila de Lima outraged her supporters and human rights activists, who said the government had manufactured drug trafficking charges to silence her criticism of Mr Duterte and intimidate others.

The 57-year-old lawyer, who has spent nearly a decade trying to link Mr Duterte to death squads that have allegedly killed thousands of people, could be jailed for life if she is found guilty of drug trafficking.

"I have no plans of fleeing and I have no plans to go in hiding. I will face all these charges," a tearful Ms De Lima told reporters at the Senate in the early evening after a Manila court issued the arrest warrant.

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Ms De Lima then went to her home in another part of the capital after believing she had secured an agreement with authorities to surrender on Friday morning.

But, after police were seen on national television driving to her home to arrest her, Ms De Lima quickly left and returned to the perceived safety of the Senate building.

She and her allies had previously said protocols dictated police should not arrest her in the Senate.

Ms De Lima appealed late on Thursday night for police not to arrest her overnight and committed to surrendering on Friday.

"If they respect the Senate as an institution, they should not force an arrest tonight. That would really be a disrespect to the Senate. They should just wait for me outside tomorrow," she told reporters at the Senate.

Ms De Lima is accused of orchestrating a drug trafficking ring when she was justice secretary in the previous administration of Benigno Aquino.

But Ms De Lima and her supporters insist she is innocent, and that Mr Duterte wants to crush one of his most vocal and enduring critics.

Ms De Lima this week branded Mr Duterte a "sociopathic serial killer" as she called for ordinary Filipinos to stand up in opposition to his drug war, which has seen more than 6,500 people killed since he took office eight months ago.

Ms De Lima's Liberal Party, which ruled for six years under Mr Aquino, voiced deep anger on Thursday at her imminent arrest.

"The Liberal Party reiterates that it condemns the political persecution of brave administration critic Sen Leila De Lima," it said in a statement.

"This arrest is purely political vendetta and has no place in (a) justice system that upholds the rule of law. This is condemnable. We reiterate that an arrest based on trumped-up charges is illegal."

The party also said it feared for Ms De Lima's life once she was arrested, citing the killing by police of another politician, Rolando Espinosa, inside a jail cell in November last year after he was arrested on drug charges.

The National Bureau of Investigation said the police who raided the jail murdered him and that he was defenceless.

But Mr Duterte said he chose to believe the police version that they were serving an arrest warrant on Espinosa inside the jail before dawn and the officers shot at him in self defence.

Mr Duterte, 71, won the presidential election last year after promising during the campaign to eradicate drugs in society by killing tens of thousands of people.

He immediately launched the crackdown after taking office in June and police have reported killing 2,555 drug suspects since then, with about 4,000 other people murdered in unexplained circumstances.

Amnesty International has warned that police actions in the drug war may amount to crimes against humanity.

Amnesty said Thursday that, if Ms De Lima was arrested, it would regard her as a prisoner of conscience.

"The arrest of de Lima is a blatant attempt by the Philippine government to silence criticism of President Duterte and divert attention away from serious human rights violations in the 'war on drugs'," it said.