Leila de Lima

‘Player-coach’ Leila de Lima slowly regains control

Lian Buan

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‘Player-coach’ Leila de Lima slowly regains control

HOMECOMING. Freed former senator Leila De Lima arrives at her family home in Iriga City, Camarines Sur on November 15, 2023. Photo by Ulysis Pontanares/Rappler

Ulysis Pontanares/Rappler

During her first week in the free world, Leila de Lima is practical and straightforward – she gets a dental checkup and a driver's license

CAMARINES SUR, Philippines – Leila de Lima’s freedom has a strangeness to it – the most-awaited reunions are emotional, but the small details of them feel like she never left.

In Naga City where she met former vice president Leni Robredo on Thursday, November 16, local government staff swarmed her for a photo, and told her: “Thank you for all your support for our office, hindi mo kami pinabayaan (you never left us).”

De Lima, staunchest critic of former president Rodrigo Duterte who was investigated and charged by his allies for drug trade conspiracy, spent the five-and-a-half years of her six-year senatorial term in prison. She would give the credit to her own staff, saying, “They just refer these things to me.”

The first ones who greeted her Wednesday night, November 15, before she could even reach the door of her home in Iriga City were neighbors whom the former senator apparently also helped in times of illness. “Welcome home Manay (sister)!! Thank you Lord, thank you Jesus,” they said.

In some ways, her return to the free world was slow. De Lima, who has been in the political limelight for at least 15 years, dodged questions about politics and about counteroffensives against who she calls her persecutors. “It’s not the proper time now,” she said.

But she also went straight to business.

In just three days, De Lima had held a family reunion in Iriga City, paid visits to Our Lady of Manaoag in Pangasinan and Our Lady of Peñafrancia in Naga; she had visited her father’s grave, an orphanage, and she had managed to get a dental checkup and start the process to renew her driver’s license.

Furniture, Table, Desk
RENEWING IDs. The newly-freed Leila de Lima takes an LTO exam to renew her driver’s license. Photo courtesy of former VP Leni Robredo’s Facebook page

“It was poignant listening to her immediate concerns now. She’s relearning how it is to live in freedom again,” Robredo said.

Mahabang panahon ang isinakripisyo, maraming nawala na hindi na maibabalik, pero finally nakalabas na siya,” added Robredo. (She sacrificed a long time of her life, she lost many things that cannot be recovered, but finally she is free.)

Even in freedom, even as she takes it slow, there is a feeling that time is still so short as in a few days, De Lima would be back in Manila again. 

“My plan was, I would stay in Bicol for a while. But now that there are simply a lot of things to attend to in Manila, and I have to fix what would be my schedule, I am afraid I could only stay here for a few days,” De Lima said.

‘A player-coach’

For one, she still has to attend court for the remaining one count of conspiracy to commit illegal drug trading, the case for which she was granted bail.

Not that she wasn’t hands-on in her case when she was in prison. Her litigation team teases that “she’s like Jaworski, she is a playing coach.”

No pleading is filed in court without passing her. Even small pleadings like asking for medical furloughs need to go to Camp Crame first. The dispatches from Crame the country has come to know – the litigation team gets them too, love letters of instructions, sometimes with a tinge of reproach. “But at the end she will write, ‘I defer to the litigation team,'” the lawyers said.

Kapag may major pleading like petition for bail, magpapatawag ‘yan [sa loob ng Camp Crame] to discuss strategy,” said her legal adviser and friend Jojo Garcia. (If we have a major pleading like petition for bail, she will call for a meeting in Camp Crame to discuss strategy.)

Even inside the courtroom, her lawyers said, she would pass along instructions on how to examine the witnesses. When they are able to extract recantations, or show a lie, De Lima would pass the note, “diinan mo pa (hammer it down).”

“She’s the secretary of justice, the human rights chairperson, a Bar placer,” her lawyer Dino de Leon conceded.

Because she cannot be in control when she was in jail, she has learned to manage expectations. The biggest disappointment was the denial of the first petition for bail in June this year.

There was a marked difference in her aura, ibang-iba, when I asked her kung kamusta ka na, ang sabi  niya hindi na ako umaasa eh, acceptance ang nangyari, ‘ayaw ko nang umasa,’ tutukan na lang natin ang kaso,” recalled her lawyer Boni Tacardon.

(There was a marked difference in her aura, it’s so different, when I asked her how she was, she said she was no longer hopeful, it was acceptance. She did not want to hope, she just wanted to focus on the case.)

Even her family learned to manage hope, said her cousin Elma Gaspi. On Monday, November 13, when the ruling came out granting bail, Gaspi said they tried not to be too excited.

Relax lang kami, ayaw namin mag-expect dahil laging failure. Hindi na kami nag-expect. Kung lalabas siya, saka tayo maniwala kung nandito na,” said Gaspi. (We were relaxed, we did not want to expect because we have had many failures. We did not expect anymore. If she was going to be released, the only time we would believe is, if she’s actually here.)

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Inside Camp Crame and the courtroom: De Lima’s anxiety and joy

Inside Camp Crame and the courtroom: De Lima’s anxiety and joy
‘I’ve long been waiting for this’

Since regaining freedom, she has gotten her way once and compromised on the other. First, she was able to drive to Pangasinan to visit Our Lady of Manaoag despite the opposition of her lawyers who feared for her safety.

The Iriga City homecoming was agreed upon by everyone, but De Lima would have wanted to travel by land, anxious about planes. Her lawyers once again opposed it, fearful that the 11-hour travel time would be exposing her too much. She landed in Iriga City Wednesday afternoon by commercial plane.

“That’s a legitimate concern and we’re taking it seriously. That’s the advice of my team, my lawyers, and my friends – don’t be complacent about your security, you are now very vulnerable, so we’re taking extra precautions,” said De Lima.

Pero hindi naman puwedeng walang (but it’s not possible to have no) interaction with people because I’ve long been waiting for this, to be able to mingle, to be with people, and to interact with them, kasi limitado ang naging mundo ko nung nakakulong ako (because my world was limited when I was detained),” she added.

‘Player-coach’ Leila de Lima slowly regains control
Her father’s daughter

De Lima was always the family star. As a young girl she became a majorette, a setter of the school’s volleyball team, a Kabataang Barangay (youth) leader, and valedictorian from elementary to high school.

But even then, Gaspi said she did not expect De Lima to have the highly political life she had.

Siguro sa influence ng Daddy niya, na ang tawag noon dito ay abogado de campanilla,” said Gaspi (Maybe because of her dad’s influence who was known here before as a lawyer of stature.)

De Lima said as much: “My dad is principally responsible for the molding of my character, this character that you see as a public figure. Matapang, naninindigan sa dapat panindigan, ang daddy ko ‘yun (Brave, stands by her principles, that’s my dad).”

De Lima has said she’s willing to help the International Criminal Court (ICC) investigate former president Rodrigo Duterte’s drug war and the alleged Davao Death Squad. Her campaign for accountability for the killings remains to be her main advocacy, she said.

The player-coach, it seems, is raring to call the shots again.

“I want to go back to my private practice, I want to go back to teaching law,” she said.

“The justice system, no matter how defective, still works – with a lot of patience, and with a lot of hope.” – Rappler.com


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  1. DV

    Former President Duterte was angry at De Lima because she favored the ICC to investigate him and his cohorts in Davao City on the EKJ cases against them. To make matters worst for De Lima , he made up a story that her driver was her lover. Then Using his power as President he accused De Lima as a drug smuggler . And De Lima ended in prison.

  2. ET

    Agree: “… don’t be complacent about your security, you are now very vulnerable.” And if I may be allowed to add: a High Value Target for the Death-Threatening Eagle of Davao City.

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Lian Buan

Lian Buan is a senior investigative reporter, and minder of Rappler's justice, human rights and crime cluster.