MANILA, Philippines – The prolonged detention of opposition Senator Leila de Lima, among all the attacks she had endured from President Rodrigo Duterte and his allies, should have been made an election issue, and the candidates for president measured by voters according to what they intended to do with the senator’s plight.
This was one raised by Rappler executive editor Glenda Gloria on Newsbreak Chats on Thursday, April 28, where senior editors shared insights on what made the 2022 campaigns and elections different from past cycles they had covered and watched.
“[She] is a prisoner of conscience,” Gloria said, after investigative editor Miriam Grace A. Go asked why she had been saying that De Lima’s incarceration should have been one of issues addressed by candidates.
“[But] the reason na hindi rin [naging isyu], na-demonize siya: babae si Leila, matapang si Leila,” Gloria continued.
(She is a prisoner of conscience…but the reason [her detention] didn’t [become an election issue] was because she was demonized: she’s a woman, she’s brave.)
De Lima , who is up for reelection in the May 9 polls, has been in jail for five years. She was jailed in 2017 – less than a year into her Senate term after winning in 2016 – in the aftermath of highly-publicized congressional probe into her alleged involvement with the illegal drug trade inside the New Bilibid Prison when she was justice secretary from 2010 to 2015.
The hearings, which involved convicts and alleged drug lords as key witnesses and were led by male members of the House of Representatives, reeked of misogyny and sexism. The lines of inquiry often dived into De Lima’s romantic relationship with her former security aide Ronnie Dayan, who was accused of being her bagman. (READ: ‘Kailan kayo nag-climax?’: Nonsense questions at the Bilibid drugs hearing)
The attacks and rhetoric coming from Duterte’s allies also mirrored discussions on social media, according to Rappler’s head of digital strategy Gemma Bagayaua-Mendoza.
“Binaboy [si De Lima], long and short of it, na-dehumanize siya, hindi na siya tao,” she said, referring to the findings of her team’s numerous studies on social media discourse.
“The language na nakikita mo, sobrang pambababoy ang ginawa sa kanya,” Mendoza added.
(They debased her. Long and short of it, she was dehumanized. The language that we monitored being used against her were meant to totally were really out to drag her through the mud.)
Full force of the law
De Lima has so far been acquitted in one of the three cases filed against her. On Thursday, detained alleged drug lord Kerwin Espinosa retracted all his accusations against De Lima, writing in a sworn affidavit submitted to the Department of Justice (DOJ) that he was “coerced, pressured, intimidated and seriously threatened” to make all his previous statements.
Among the presidential candidates, Gloria said, it was labor leader Leody de Guzman who had been very clear and unequivocal about his position: if he would get elected, he’d free De Lima because she’s a political prisoner.
She said Vice President Leni Robredo took the “free De Lima” stance too. (De Lima is on Robredo’s senatorial slate in 2022.)
Gloria pointed out that if presidents could order the release of political prisoners and even rebel soldiers who nearly brought down the government, then why not a this sitting senator who’s not been convicted of the crimes attributed to her.
To the position of Manila Mayor Isko Moreno and Senator Manny Pacquiao that the detained senator should have her day in court and be given due process, Gloria said De Lima already went through so much, especially as the “full force of the law was used against her.”
“Iyong sagot na…kailangan sundin ang due process (To their answer that due process should be observed), she has paid her dues. She’s been in jail for five years, deprived of her mandate and her right to serve that mandate by attending Senate sessions,” Gloria said.
“[The road was paved] to demonize her, and to emasculate her, and to weaken her voice,” she said.
De Lima is one of the fiercest critics of Duterte and his administration. As senator, De Lima spearheaded hearings on the extrajudicial killings under Duterte’s war on drugs, as well as training the spotlight again on the notorious Davao Death Squad (DDS).
Her work at the Senate – focusing on human rights and justice – is an extension of her stint as chairperson at the Commission on Human Rights (CHR), where she investigated the killings linked to the DDS, a group alleged to have carried out kill orders from then-mayor Duterte himself.
De Lima’s CHR investigation in 2009 was perhaps the most incisive untangling of the death squad, going as far as holding public hearings in Duterte’s bailiwick. Self-confessed DDS hitman Edgar Matobato, during a Senate hearing in 2016, said that there was a planned ambush against the then-CHR chairperson.
Veteran human rights workers, especially those who closely followed the 2009 proceedings, often tagged the CHR probe into DDS as the root of Duterte’s anger against her.
In a statement on Friday, April 29, De Lima said the retraction of Espinosa proves that the testimonies of witnesses “were used by the DOJ to manufacture lies about [her] and about crimes that [she] did not commit.”
“Duterte and his minions used the whole might and abused the power of the government just to destroy and send me to prison,” she said.
“As their power comes to an end, so will their lies, and the truth shall finally set me free,” the opposition senator added. – Rappler.com