Leila de Lima fights on

Rachel A.G. Reyes – April 23, 2019

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WALK to the end of a rough concrete path and through two locked gates and one reaches Sen. Leila de Lima’s jail cell in Camp Crame, the high security headquarters of the Philippine National Police. Visitors are not permitted to see the cell. This is a privilege reserved for only a few relatives and selected staff. But de Lima’s prison security guards will readily tell you about it.

De Lima is being detained in a jail cell measuring about 3 meters by 4 meters. Crammed into this space, which is regularly searched, are a bed, a toilet, a shower and a store cupboard where she can keep a few things. She is prohibited from having an airconditioner and has to make do with an electric fan. The cell gets unbearably hot. The inside temperature soars to 40 degrees in the daytime. Until four months ago, the cell had no window. All her food is brought in. The fear that someone may try to poison her is real — she shares the prison with some dangerous inmates who were put behind bars by her. De Lima has been living under these conditions for two years, two months and counting.

On this humid Palm Sunday morning, de Lima appears bright and fresh, effectively squelching the rumors that prison time had turned her gaunt and frail. The 59-year-old former justice secretary and ex-chief of the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) wears a jaunty black-and-white striped shirt, a necklace of colorful beads and dangling earrings. She has maintained her iconic haircut, a crisply cut bob, lightened with blonde streaks. The confident de Lima style is evident for all to see.

A group of nuns and supporters have come to celebrate mass with her and her relatives. There are cousins and childhood friends. Vicente, her younger brother, has just returned from a Geneva summit on human rights, where he accepted an award on her behalf. In his acceptance speech, he appealed to governments to send their diplomats to visit his sister and issue messages of support. “Our family had always been low profile until Leila’s arrest,” he says. Their quest now is for the world to know the injustice being done to de Lima and shatter what he calls a “conspiracy of silence.” He thinks of this time as a battle between good and evil. Drawing on a “Star Wars” analogy, he tells me: “The Empire is striking back and there are so few Jedi left.”

International attention comes at a heavy cost, however. A visit in early 2018 by an inter-parliamentary delegation, resulted in privileges being removed, and more onerous requirements for foreigners wishing to visit her. Any foreign prospective visitor now has to disclose their complete itinerary to the PNP and get an endorsement from the Department of Foreign Affairs.

The regular Sunday mass gatherings, affectionately called “Parokya ni Leila,” are presided over by Fathers Albert Alejo, Flavie Villanueva and Robert Reyes, the three priests who minister to de Lima and are, themselves, on the receiving end of some ugly and serious death threats. She calls them her “3 Oscar Romeros” after the Latin American archbishop who championed the poor and was assassinated in El Salvador in 1980. It’s a title full of grim humor. In recent months, three priests were murdered, one of whom was gunned down as he celebrated mass.

While Duterte remains president, de Lima knows that her own fate is uncertain. “We have a history,” she says flatly. In 2009, as chair of the CHR, she investigated the extrajudicial killings in Davao City, allegedly being committed by vigilante assassins known as the Davao Death Squad. De Lima interrogated Duterte, who was mayor at the time. “I was trying to solve something in Davao,” she recalls. Duterte was none too pleased by the investigation. He would give her thrashings on his radio show, cursing her and calling her a fool. In 2016, in an ironic twist, Duterte assumed the presidency and she was elected to the Senate. She quickly became his most ferocious critic and they went head to head.

When de Lima initiated a Senate resolution calling for a probe into the Davao killings, two weeks after Duterte’s election, when his popularity was running at an all-time high, her colleagues thought she was committing political suicide and counseled her to pick a better time. But the fresh wave of killings, unleashed by Duterte’s newly launched anti-drug war, had already started and dead bodies, with taped heads, and bearing a cardboard sign on which was scrawled “I am a drug pusher. Don’t copy me,” were appearing all over Manila. De Lima remembers being outraged. She remains unregretful of her decision, even when it stymied her fledgling political career. “I don’t care about the timing. When something is the right thing to do, you just have to do it,” she says.

Duterte publicly accused her of allowing drug trading in Metro Manila’s New Bilibid prison while she was justice secretary; of taking kickbacks and using the money to fund her senatorial campaign. Her accomplice, or bagman, Duterte alleged, was a married man who was also her lover. The President even claimed to have seen a sex tape of them. Witnesses to the prison drug dealing were brought forward — a sorry bunch of convicted drug lords and criminals who were later released as a reward for their cooperation. A largely compliant House of Representatives and Supreme Court proceeded to uphold her arrest on drug charges.

On Feb. 24, 2017, de Lima was taken from her Senate office by an excessive number of arresting police officers. “You are finished,” Duterte vowed, and told de Lima to go and kill herself. Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio denounced her incarceration as “one of the grossest injustices in recent memory.” Fellow justice Marvic Leonen concurred. Her case, in his view, was “quintessentially the use of the strong arm of the law to silence dissent.”

Although she does not blame them for allowing what happened, de Lima admits to feeling hurt by her colleagues, who perhaps, she thinks, might have done more to protect her. “I’m not a political heavyweight,” she reflects. “I’m not a stalwart of the Liberal Party. I was a newbie in politics. There was no political value in protecting me,” she says.

Vindication is all de Lima wishes for. She has consistently proclaimed her innocence and believes that the truth will protect her and will prevail. The result of the coming senatorial elections, however, could prove decisive to her fate. If she is to have a chance at freedom, opposition senatorial candidates must succeed. “They must keep showing their fitness and worthiness. They must keep fighting,” she advises. “Anything can happen.”

For de Lima, hope remains undimmed. “Is this the end of the world for me? Is this the end of the road? They can cut me down but I will never bow,” she says with conviction. “Like air, I rise.”

Vicente de Lima II speaks at the 2019 Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy.