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MANILA, Philippines – The exact thing that earned for former senator Leila de Lima the ire and vitriol of Rodrigo Duterte, leading to years of detention, remains her priority: Fighting for justice for drug war victims.
De Lima, in an exclusive Rappler interview, said that she “intends to pursue this simultaneously” with running after Duterte for sending her to jail. But if the investigation by the International Criminal Court (ICC) requires it, her personal agenda “can probably take a backseat.”
“If that happens, that the investigation by the ICC will be in full swing and there will be some urgency there, then I can first focus on that before pursuing my own case against Mr. Duterte,” she told Rappler CEO and Nobel laureate Maria Ressa on November 23.
“My priority actually is to assist the ICC, for justice for the victims, families of the victims of the drug war,” De Lima added.
The former senator was released on bail on November 13 after almost seven years in detention after being accused of involvement in the illegal drug trade at the New Bilibid Prison. De Lima’s “persecution” is widely considered to be orchestrated by none other than Duterte due to her staunch advocacy against the killings carried out under his watch.
As Commission on Human Rights (CHR) chairperson in 2009, De Lima led the investigation into the killings allegedly carried out by the Davao Death Squad (DDS), which resulted in a resolution that found “probable cause,” urging the Office of the Ombudsman to probe the “possible administrative and criminal liability” of Duterte.
She was incisive during Senate investigations into Duterte’s drug war up until she was arrested in February 2017. It was during these hearings – both in Congress and during her time at the CHR – where the likes of alleged DDS hitman Edgar Matobato and other whistleblowers came forward and discussed details about gruesome killings.
Now out on bail at an opportune time, De Lima said she is “willing to cooperate” and is “volunteering [her] experience, if not expertise” to the ICC. Proceedings at the court are now at the stage where Prosecutor Karim Khan can either request for an arrest warrant or summons, if he finds enough grounds based on his investigation.
“I will assist in whatever capacity to build the case [at the] ICC against Duterte and all others responsible for those senseless killings,” she said.
At least 6,252 people were killed during anti-illegal drug police operations between July 2022 and May 31, 2022. The death toll is estimated to rise to between 27,000 to 30,000 if victims of extrajudicial killings are included, according to human rights groups.
Only a few have been convicted in drug war-related killings while families left behind are still facing challenges, including harassment and intimidation from the police. Many are now pinning their hopes on the ICC to bring them justice amid continued impunity in the Philippines.
But tide seem to be turning in the country. There are now three pending resolutions at the House of Representatives urging government agencies to cooperate with the ICC investigation, with one filed by non-opposition lawmakers. Justice Secretary Jesus Crispin “Boying” Remulla said cooperation with the ICC needs “serious study.”
“I hope that the majority of the lawmakers would vote for that measure before the House and ultimately at the Senate,” De Lima said.