Leila de Lima

Leila de Lima: ‘I’m back’

Jairo Bolledo

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Leila de Lima: ‘I’m back’
'I'm back with renewed energy and a renewed outlook on life,' the former senator says

MANILA, Philippines – “I’m back.”

Incarcerated for close to seven years for standing up for human rights, former senator Leila de Lima declared in an exclusive interview with Rappler: “I cannot say I’m back with a vengeance, but I’m back with very high hopes and aspirations. I’m back with renewed energy and a renewed outlook on life, knowing that I can still do a lot of good for this country, not necessarily in politics.”

The former lawmaker said the reason why she entered politics is because of her aspiration to push for reforms, but her persecutors tried to destroy her along the way. Since they did not succeed, De Lima said she will still pursue the same advocacy.

After six years, eight months, and 21 days in prison, De Lima walked free from her detention facility at the Philippine National Police custodial center on November 13. She was able to gain temporary freedom after Muntinlupa City Regional Trial Court Branch 206 granted her bail, citing the weak allegations against the former senator.

Leila de Lima: ‘I’m back’

Due to her criticisms against former president Rodrigo Duterte and his bloody drug war that killed thousands, De Lima was slapped with three drug charges. The former Commission on Human Rights chair was accused of allegedly enabling the illegal drug trade inside the New Bilibid Prison, during her term as Department of Justice (DOJ) secretary, to allegedly fund her 2016 senatorial run.

In 2021, her fourth year into detention, the first drug charge against De Lima was dismissed by the court. Two years later, in May 2023, another court acquitted her in the second drug charge, citing the recantations of witnesses against the opposition icon.

In the first few days after her release, De Lima showed that detention did not change her outlook in life at all. She granted several interviews, even allowing journalists to accompany her to the Manaoag church in Pangasinan and in her hometown in Iriga City, Camarines Sur to visit her mom.

And in her first sit-down interview in more than six years, De Lima shared how she survived detention, braved all the attacks, and the lessons she earned along the way.

Robbed

De Lima said she had to sacrifice a lot of things because of her detention. Her family was the most affected, she said.

As a mother of two, De Lima was robbed of years she should have spent with her sons. Her second son was able to finish law school and pass the Bar exams, but De Lima was not there to celebrate with him.

She was also deprived of close to seven years that should have been spent with her 91-year-old ailing mother, Norma, who suffers from dementia. The last time she was able to visit was in 2019, when the courts allowed it because Norma was “fighting for her life” at the time.

To lessen her mother’s worries, De Lima had to pretend that she was in the United States, and not in detention. During her reunion with her mother shortly after her release, De Lima gave her mother dollar bills as supposed proof of her having come from the US.

During the reunion, De Lima’s mother appealed to her daughter: “Dito ka na. Huwag mo na akong iwanan.” (Stay here. Don’t leave me again.)

Leila de Lima: ‘I’m back’

But on top of losing time for her family, De Lima said she missed a lot of personal milestones. Due to her detention, De Lima said she was not able to interact with a lot people and help them. She was also prevented from effectively fighting for her core advocacies, which include human rights, the rule of law, democracy, and social justice.

“Then during the time that I was still a senator, imagine I was only given eight months out of the sixth official term as senator. The opportunity to fully fulfill, to serve my mandate as a newly-elected senator,” De Lima said.

“That was all taken from me. I was robbed of my personal dignity. Pretty painful.”

Braving the attacks

Calling Duterte her “chief oppressor,” De Lima said she did not expect that the former president would go to the extent of jailing her. She said she though it would only be daily vilification, curses, and misogynistic attacks.

“I thought, just [that], not to the extent of filing cases, bogus cases at that, and worse, jailing me. When I was jailed, I thought it was just going to be a few days, a few months, a few years. I thought that since I was on the side of truth, I thought that I could get immediate legal reprieve from the proper courts, like the Supreme Court (SC). Unfortunately, I did not,” the former lawmaker added.

For her case, De Lima sought help from the High Court as the court of last resort, but was unsuccessful in swaying the SC to side with her. When her case reached the SC, retired senior associate justice Antonio Carpio, along with current associate justices Marvic Leonen and Alfredo Benjamin Caguioa, and then-associate justices Estela Perlas-Bernabe and Francis Jardeleza, were the only magistrates who sided with De Lima.

In his dissenting opinion, Carpio even called De Lima’s case then as “one of the grossest injustices” in recent memory. After De Lima’s release, Carpio said that De Lima should have been granted bail earlier, and that there was no case against her in the first place.

On top of cases, De Lima also faced gender-based attacks. During the probe into the allegations against her, De Lima was subjected to various misogynistic attacks, with some lawmakers even disclosing intimate details about her personal life. In her old phone, De Lima said she received over 2,000 hate messages and “unprintable words” that she had to throw away her phone.

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Unfortunately, De Lima was not the sole target of these attacks. The intimidation reached her son.

“It was so painful. Not only me, my son, my second son,” the former lawmaker said. “He would also receive those. It was so painful. He was crying. What is this, mom? Why are they doing this to you? I must really bear with all of that so I can show my tormentors that they cannot just do that, that I’m not breakable.”

In the middle of these gender-based attacks, De Lima said she had to face all the accusations with honesty. This was to prove that if she’s honest with her personal life, she can prove that she’s innocent in all of the accusations against her.

“How can I be perceived as honest in asserting my innocence about my alleged drug links if I cannot be honest with my personal life? I must admit my frailties. I’m not without sin. Like anyone else, I’m also sinful. But certainly, I’m no evil woman. I’m not the kind of woman that they’ve been portraying, especially at that time,” De Lima said.

De Lima, the survivor

How did she survive all the attacks? De Lima pointed to her father’s genes.

De Lima said her father, late former Commission on Elections commissioner and lawyer Vicente de Lima, raised his children to be tough. The late Vicente would always tell them to be strong and be ready for all kinds of situations.

“You can never tell. Fortunes and misfortunes of life, you should be able to deal with all kinds of circumstances in your life. So, you’ve got to be strong always. And you’ve got to learn how to fight always for what you think is right, no matter what the cost is,” the former lawmaker said, sharing the wisdom she gained from her late father.

Close to seven years of detention made De Lima realize several things. First, she said she was able to prove to herself that the Philippines is not ready for strong women, despite tons of success stories about female leaders and change-makers. The fact that the political scene is still male-dominated, the Philippines is yet to fully embrace strong women, she said.

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Second, De Lima said she also got to know who her real friends are. There were people whom she expected to be sympathetic to her, but they did not show any support. De Lima said she understands that there were also people who were actually sympathetic, but could not show it in public.

Nevertheless, De Lima said she could not help but feel disappointment. “But it’s truly disappointing because they would have the stature to stand up. Yes, the stature to do that. To help a beleaguered ally. They knew that I was fighting for the right causes. So why be silent about it? And why be scared about displeasing the one in the Palace?”

But these things, including the attacks and the milestones she missed, did not change her principles at all, the former lawmaker said. De Lima said her core was not shaken by the attacks against her. And for seven years, she kept in mind that she needed to remain strong because she didn’t want to give her oppressors the satisfaction of seeing her fall.

“I don’t ever want to give them the pleasure or the satisfaction of seeing me beaten or my spirit broken. Because that was their agenda. Their agenda was to silence me. Their agenda was to break my spirit so that I would stop calling out the murderous ways that characterize that sham war on drugs. That’s the whole agenda,” De Lima explained.

“So that was persistently in my mind the whole time, in my almost seven years. I’m here, but I’m innocent, but I’m here. I’m innocent because they want me destroyed. But why allow them?”

Holding Duterte accountable

During her first press conference after her release, the former lawmaker said of Duterte: “God forgive him and God bless him.”

But in her latest interview, De Lima was straightforward when she said that she wants Duterte to be held responsible for all the attacks the former president had directed at her.

“Now, I want Mr. Duterte and all others responsible, the handlers, the operators, and the ones who worked on these witnesses to be held responsible. Now, especially now that Mr. Duterte is no longer immune from suits and that is what my team of lawyers is now working on,” she said.

De Lima said there’s also another way to hold Duterte accountable for his alleged crimes – this time, for the thousands of people killed during his bloody drug war. De Lima said that in her capacity as former CHR chairperson, she is willing to assist the International Criminal Court (ICC) in its probe into Duterte’s alleged crimes.

“I will assist in whatever capacity it takes to build the ICC case, against Duterte and all others responsible for those senseless killings. I’m volunteering my experience, if not expertise, on the matter of the Davao death squad, and the findings in that inquiry,” De Lima said.

The former lawmaker said that as much as she can, she intends to pursue her complaints against Duterte and assist the ICC.

De Lima, however, said it is her priority to assist the international court to give justice to the drug war victims and their families.

“That’s my priority. My own cases against Mr. Duterte can probably take a backseat first if really, there is some real urgency…. This development about…some plan now to consider full cooperation, allowing the ICC probers to come in, is a good development.” It’s a portent of things to come. – Rappler.com

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Jairo Bolledo

Jairo Bolledo is a multimedia reporter at Rappler covering justice, police, and crime.