Leila de Lima

Freed De Lima an extra hand in ICC probe into Duterte drug war, death squad

Lian Buan

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Freed De Lima an extra hand in ICC probe into Duterte drug war, death squad

HOMECOMING. Former senator Leila De Lima comes home to her family house in Iriga City, Camarines Sur on November 15, 2023.

Ulysis Pontanares/Rappler

'My resolve is still so strong in terms of seeking justice for the murderous drug war of the previous regime,' says former senator Leila De Lima

CAMARINES SUR, Philippines – Leila De Lima is “too happy” right now to think of former president Rodrigo Duterte, dodging repeated questions about her counter-offensive plan against the man, she claims, sent her to jail.

But she was ready to answer with certitude the question about whether she will contribute to the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) investigation into Duterte’s bloody war on drugs, and the alleged Davao Death Squad. The ICC investigation is now on its fifth year and has reached the level where the prosecutor can request for an arrest warrant or summons.

Yes, dati ko nang naiisip ‘yun, in whatever capacity kung ano pa ang puwedeng gawin na maitulong sa ICC investigation,” De Lima said from her home in Iriga City, Camarines Sur, Wednesday evening November 15.

(Yes, I have been thinking of that, I will help in whatever capacity with anything that the ICC investigation needs.)

What De Lima has are records, and herself. She was the human rights chairperson who did a full-blown investigation that revealed the first concrete stories about Davao City’s dark myth: that there is a death squad run by the mayor, and future president Duterte.

The ICC investigation, while it does not name suspects at this point, is two-pronged and leads to Duterte: the drug war and the Davao Death Squad. What we know for sure is that the ICC has already given limited immunity to witness Arturo Lascañas, a retired Davao cop who said he and his fellow hitmen killed at least 100 on the orders of then-mayor Duterte.

“After all, I started that investigation in the CHR,” said De Lima.

When the ICC’s appeals chamber sustained the Philippine investigation in July, the timeline was set for Prosecutor Karim Khan to make his next move – possibly a summons, at most a warrant. Khan has since been busy with the Palestine investigation when war in Gaza broke out.

A possible alternative move, a smaller one, would be to finally send ICC investigators to the country. They were never able to during the time of Duterte, and for a time it also seemed unlikely under President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. whose official policy on the ICC was, “disengage.”

Will the Marcos government allow ICC investigators entry? They are open to dialogue “of course,” said Justice Secretary Jesus Crispin “Boying” Remulla in a text exchange with Rappler on October 26. “It’s diplomacy we have to practice,” Remulla said.

“Pangunahin kong pinaglalaban ‘yun, pangunahin kong advocacy ‘yun…pinaglalaban ko ang hustisya para sa mga libo-libong naging biktima ng drug war,” said De Lima.

(I am fighting for that foremost, that’s my primary advocacy…fighting for justice for the thousands of victims of the drug war.)

‘You’re very vulnerable’

That De Lima is an obvious piece of the Duterte puzzle is part of the reason why her lawyers fear for her safety. Her team has put in place a very tight security plan ever since she was granted bail on November 13. At times, De Lima visibly holds back on her statements.

“‘Yun talaga ang advice ng mga kasamahan ko, ng lawyers ko, ng mga kaibigan ko, ‘Don’t be complacent about your security, you are now very vulnerable,’ so we’re taking extra precautions,” she said.

(That’s really the advice of my team, my lawyers, and my friends, “Don’t be complacent about your security, you are now very vulnerable,” so we are taking extra precautions.)

So on Wednesday when she was once again asked about Duterte, she said: “Masayang-masaya po ako so hindi ko muna po kayo iisipin,” she said. (I am too happy, I don’t want to think about you yet.)

But she cannot hold back on her main advocacy, she said. “That was the reason why this was done to me after all,” she said, referring to the Senate investigations she led from 2016 to 2017 that eventually brought to light witnesses like Lascañas.

“It cannot deter my resolve, my resolve is still so strong in terms of seeking justice for the murderous drug war of the previous regime,” she said.

All her lawyers ask is that she stays in Iriga City for a while. “Sabi ko kapag nasa Bicol ka na, after makasama mo ‘yung mom mo, may time ka rin to take stock, ang suggestion ko, ‘yung mga nirerespeto mo yayain mo sa Bicol, to talk directions, where to go from here,” her lawyer and fellow Bicolano Teddy Rigoroso recounted to Rappler on November 9, what he told De Lima.

(I said, once you are in Bicol, after you reunite with your mom, you have the time to take stock, my suggestion is to invite everyone you respect to Bicol, to talk directions, where to go from here.)

On Thursday, November 16, De Lima met former vice president Leni Robredo in Naga City. The women of the opposition, two of the most popular members at this time, said they did not talk about politics as it’s not “the right time.”

But reporters had already caught up with Duterte’s latest statement saying, “Magsama-sama na kayo ng ICC.” (Go ahead and join forces with the ICC.)

So once more, De Lima is pushed to talk about the one person she said she doesn’t want to think about for now.

“Did I do a crime against humanity? No, walang basehan, siya lang ang makukulong.” (There’s no basis. Only he will go to jail.)

Face, Head, Person
OPPOSITION WOMEN. Former senator Leila De Lima and former vice president Leni Robredo, key figures of the opposition, meet in Naga City on November 16, 2023. Photo by Lian Buan/Rappler

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  1. ET

    Wow, the Death-Threatening Eagle of Davao City is very brave: “Magsama-sama na kayo ng ICC.” He is also very brave against local communists but very coward and subservient to the International Communist Bully. Madam De Lima should heed the security advices from her friends and never underestimate what the Death-Threatening Eagle of Davao City can do to her.

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Lian Buan

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