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MANILA, Philippines – Former senator Leila de Lima has been behind bars for more than six years. But in May this year, she saw a semblance of hope.
Inside the small courtroom of Muntinlupa City Regional Trial Court (RTC) Branch 204, on May 12, De Lima, along with her family and friends, patiently awaited the verdict on her second case. Vicente de Lima II, the former senator’s younger brother, sat directly behind his sister.
The tiny space was immediately filled with spontaneous clapping and cheer after hearing the word “acquitted,” Vicente narrated to Rappler.
De Lima’s brother said he immediately hugged his detained sister and told her: “Thank God. Arani na ikang makalaya. Nag-uulat na kanimu si mommy sadtu baloy sa San Agustin.” (Thank God. You will gain your freedom soon. Mommy is waiting for you at our home in San Agustin.)
De Lima, on cloud nine, replied: “Amo. Padagos ta pangadyi kay Amang Diyos at kay Inang Peñafrancia. Pag nakaluwas na ako, una kong gigibohon, migpa-uli sa Iriga para bisitahon si mommy (Yes. Just keep praying to God, the Father, and to Our Lady of Peñafrancia. When I get out, the first thing I will do is go home to Iriga to visit mommy).”
May 12, 2023 was a glorious day for them, Vicente said.
Presiding Judge Abraham Joseph Alcantara, in acquitting De Lima in one of her drug charges, said former Bureau of Corrections acting chief Rafael Ragos’ retraction of his statements against her created “reasonable doubt” about the accusations against the opposition leader. De Lima had already been acquitted in two of her three drug charges – the first one in February 2021.
The victory did not last long enough to be savored as weeks later on June 7, Muntinlupa City RTC Branch 256 Presiding Judge Romeo Buenaventura denied De Lima’s petition for bail in her only remaining drug charge.
This meant she would remain behind bars after six years and four months, despite her two acquittals from the cases filed during the term of former president Rodrigo Duterte.
De Lima and Marcos
When President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. won the presidency in May 2022, De Lima supporters kept a close eye on him, looking for clues about his preferences in relation to the detained lawmaker.
Unlike his predecessor, the incumbent president has had no direct disagreement with her. The Marcos camp was even said to have reached out to De Lima’s camp on multiple occasions.
When she was held hostage inside her detention cell at the Philippine National Police custodial center, Marcos announced that he would speak to her and even offered her an option to transfer to a different detention facility.
Following the incident, Marcos also said he would not meddle in De Lima’s case.
A former government official, who has access to both the camps of Marcos and De Lima, told Rappler that the President has a better relationship with De Lima compared to Duterte.
His government, in fact, “has nothing to gain from attacking De Lima,” the ex-official said.
Unknown to many, De Lima has a connection to the President through his sister, Senator Imee Marcos.
Lawyer Jojo Garcia, De Lima’s legal and political adviser, said Imee is “friendly” to De Lima because she feels an affinity with her. Garcia said Imee has not forgotten that De Lima “was Kabataang Barangay chair in Bicol at the time when Imee was national chair of the Marcos era youth organization.”
This connection did not seem to hold any significance when De Lima’s bail petition – which was expected by many to be approved after the two acquittals – was denied by the Muntinlupa RTC.
What fueled that expectation of bail was a statement by then-incoming justice secretary Jesus Crispin “Boying” Remulla shortly after Marcos’ victory in the 2022 polls. He said dropping charges against De Lima was possible “if it’s the only recourse,” but that he “would let the [prosecutors] do their job.”
The rhetoric shifted in April, however, when Remulla declared that his agency would oppose De Lima’s bail if her camp continued to push for her temporary release based on the merits of the case. There would be no opposition only if she cited humanitarian reasons, or if she pushed for rights to a speedy trial. (READ: DOJ ‘will not object’ if De Lima files habeas corpus plea)
Bail was denied and it was interpreted by some political analysts as a signal that whatever ties remained between the De Lima and Marcos camps had already snapped. But the former government official refuted this, saying, the bail denial has not had an effect on the relationship between De Lima and Marcos.
“I separated the judge’s decision on what I think is a change in the attitude of the Marcos government vis-a-vis the Duterte government. I think it’s a setback, but not necessarily a change in the conduct of the government vis-a-vis the Leila case, which I think, is less antagonistic than the previous government. I think that remains,” the source explained.
Optimism has not been thrown out the window because, according to the former official, he does not see any “aggressive attempt” from the Marcos camp to pressure judges to ensure De Lima’s continued detention.
If relations with Marcos are relatively fine, what about his predecessors?
If ever there is pressure being applied on De Lima’s case, it is “most probably” coming from the camps of Duterte and former president and now Pampanga 2nd District Representative Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, the former government official said.
It will be recalled that before becoming senator, De Lima served as justice secretary under the late former president Benigno Aquino III. As justice chief, it was De Lima who barred Arroyo’s departure for abroad in 2011, which allowed the government to prosecute Arroyo and detain her later on.
As Commission on Human Rights chairperson, it was De Lima who probed into the killings of the so-called Davao Death Squad closely identified with Duterte. As senator, De Lima headed the probe into Duterte’s drug war, which took the lives of at least 6,000 people – up to 30,000 if vigilante-style killings are included, according to human rights groups.
In October 2016 – months before De Lima’s arrest – Duterte said De Lima would suffer the same fate as Arroyo. The detained former lawmaker, in the same year, also alleged that Arroyo was among those behind the attacks against her, citing the former president’s “alliance” with Duterte.
If this conspiracy theory is to be believed, the seeming inaction of Marcos, according to Garcia, opens the door to both Duterte and Arroyo to exert their own brand of pressure on the case.
After all, the two former presidents still have their networks intact, built and nurtured through the years when they were in power. Their appointees to the courts and law enforcement agencies, as well as those who benefitted from their political largesse, are still entrenched.
“The problem is, the other camp [Duterte and Arroyo] is taking advantage of Marcos’ inaction because they are the ones who work on the ground,” De Lima’s legal adviser said.
If the allegation about the Duterte-Arroyo alliance having a hand in De Lima’s case is true, “then the current President is still weak vis-a-vis the coalition that put him in power,” said Maria Ela Atienza, a political science professor at the University of the Philippines Diliman.
If after a year in power, he still needs to consider his allies who helped thrust him to the presidency, Atienza said, it means that he has not been able to consolidate and “strengthen his position.”
De Lima’s continued detention, according to Carlos Conde, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW), is also proof of the Marcos government’s lack of “political will to uphold human rights.” What seems to matter more is projecting the “continuity” of power from Duterte to Marcos.
“Marcos seems keenly aware of the political costs of freeing LDL [Leila de Lima], one of them, upsetting Duterte and his supporters, so he chooses to be craven,” Conde said.
It is clearly a balancing act on the part of Marcos, according to the former government official, as he strives to calculate the political costs of antagonizing his immediate predecessor.
De Lima is seen as enemy No. 1 to Duterte and keeping her in detention “keeps the status quo” and helps preserve the “shaky alliance” between Marcos and the Dutertes, Carlos said.
It was clear early on that the former president wanted his daughter Sara to run for president. He did not hide his disdain for Marcos, calling the then-presidential aspirant a “weak leader” and a “spoiled child.”
After Marcos’ one year in office, there are already cracks in the alliance with Duterte, the former government official said. In May, rumors of an ouster plot against House Speaker Martin Romualdez, the President’s cousin, went around. Arroyo was also demoted from senior deputy speaker to deputy speaker.
But like professional politicians, both Romualdez and Arroyo issued statements, with photographs together as an added bonus. Romualdez is president of Lakas-CMD, while Arroyo is chairperson emeritus. But Vice President Sara Duterte would not have it – she resigned from Lakas-CMD, not hiding her disgust with what she termed as “political toxicity” in the House.
All things taken, De Lima could also turn out to be Marcos’ political weapon, Conde said.
“She’s convenient as a political weapon, as a sort of bargaining chip kasi hangga’t nasa kulungan siya (because until she remains detained), he [Marcos] can use LDL to as leverage with Duterte,” Conde said.
Aside from being a leverage, Marcos could also use her to improve his image and be “the darling of the international community,” Conde added.
Atienza said, “In terms of the scenario of releasing former Senator De Lima, this puts the current President in a better light in relation with the opposition and the international community in terms of respect for freedom of speech, respect for opposition, and human rights.”
The international community, particularly the European Union (EU) and the United States, have been pressuring the government to release De Lima. In May 2022, several US senators renewed their calls for her freedom.
Days before Marcos officially took office, EU officials also urged the President to address the war on drugs and De Lima’s detention – or risk losing the Philippines’ GSP+ perks. During the EU parliamentarians’ visit to the country earlier this year, they said releasing De Lima would be a “strong sign” that the Philippines wants to continue enjoying the privileges.
By the end of 2023, the Philippines’ EU tariff perks will expire and the Marcos administration will have to negotiate for its renewal. Among the privileges the country enjoys are duty-free entry for 6,200 local products, which include fruits, animals, and vegetable fat, textiles, and even metals.
“It looks like it’s just a matter of timing. When the time comes that releasing her [De Lima] is a must, he will, but I don’t know the time because of the political cost,” Conde added.
Marcos will need to consolidate political capital to do what he wants and needs to do in his remaining five years. Meanwhile, De Lima waits. – Rappler.com