Former senator Leila de Lima is finally free after six years, eight months, and 21 days of detention.
The opposition icon spent her first few days as a free woman visiting the Manaoag church in Pangasinan, her 91-year-old mother in her hometown in Iriga City, Bicol, and making public appearances. De Lima is at the center of public attention – people await her moves, particularly her actions against people who put her behind bars.
In this Hold The Line episode, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Rappler chief executive officer Maria Ressa speaks with De Lima to take a peek into the mind of the woman jailed for criticizing former president Rodrigo Duterte and his bloody drug war.
Bookmark this page to watch the interview on Thursday, November 23, at 6:30 pm. – Rappler.com
Below is the transcript of the conversation:
MARIA RESSA: I’m Maria Ressa here in Manila. You know, the show is called Hold the Line where on this side you are good and, on this side, you’re evil. That line is your values and we’ve had many different people come on the show before, but no one like this woman, who has sacrificed so much to hold the line. Please, with me, welcome, Senator Leila de Lima. Laila, welcome to Hold the Line.
FORMER SEN LEILA DE LIMA: Hi, Maria. What a splendid honor for me to be face-to-face with the Maria Ressa.
MR: Oh my God, nice to see you. This is like very wonderful to see you and to have you at Rappler. You’ve sacrificed so much. I mean, how do you, what did you sacrifice?
LDL: A lot. My family. A lot of missed personal milestones. To be able to be out there, interact with people, help them out, and pursue more fully, freely, and effectively. My core advocacies. You know, human rights, rule of law, democracy, 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.
A lot. Then my normal life as a mother, as a daughter, as an aunt, and as a friend to many. That was all taken from me. I was robbed of my personal dignity. Pretty painful.
MR: Nearly seven years in prison, right? By February 24th, it would have been seven years. And you would have been starting your eighth year. Did you ever think it would get that bad?
LDL: To be honest, I never thought that Duterte, my chief oppressor, would go to this extent or length of jailing me. I thought it would just be just daily vilification, cursing me almost daily, all those misogynistic attacks against me. I thought he would just be doing that. Then there’s all his subalterns, all of them, like a chorus, labeling me as an immoral woman, and as a mother of drug lords, drug trade queen, a number one nacre politician in the country. Those were the labels that were thrown at me. I thought, just it, 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. Unfortunately, I did not.
MR: Actually, your case is when we go back over time, right? You were really our country’s breakpoint with reality. Our data showed us online, for example, the kinds of information operations that you weathered, the kinds of weaponization of the law that followed that, right? This was the first time a sitting government of this country benefited from the trust we would give a government. In which case, part of what it exploited at that time was that people said, well, there’s smoke, there’s fire. The government wouldn’t file all these cases if they didn’t have evidence, right? Obviously, what we’re seeing now, as even the witnesses recant, it was made up, right? Trumped up charges against you.
That breaks with reality. I want to show you a clip from after you already knew that you had an arrest warrant. You already knew this. You were already under attack. And this is what you said at the Senate. Let’s roll that clip.
B-ROLL: Cruel things that are being done to me by the members of the House, some members of the Senate, and then yung mga cohorts nila sa labas, yung mga operators na yan, yung mga naggagather ng mga fabricated evidence na yan, hindi ho sila humihinto kasi nakikita nila nakatayo pa ako. I have to continue standing because I don’t want to give them the pleasure of seeing me bitten dahil alam ko po tama ang pinaglalaban ko.
MR: Leila, almost seven years you’ve held that line. That clip was followed a few days later with you quite emotional. Because again, what did you weather? Not just the online attacks, which no one but you could see really. It was inciting deep misogyny, but you were also attacked in Congress. What had these nicknamed climax congressmen? What was going through your mind, right?
LDL: Well, first I have to say those emotions, which I just saw, I just recalled, that reaction, those emotions are still with me right now. That statement about, I don’t ever want to give them the pleasure or the satisfaction of seeing me bitten or my spit broken. Because that is what was their agenda. Their agenda was to silence me. Their agenda was to break my spit so that I would stop calling out the murderous ways that characterize that sham war on drugs. That’s the whole agenda.
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? I had to bear with everything. I had to just go through the ordeal, although it had its blessings. Now, those misogynistic attacks are so painful. In fact, my phone, my old phone, I don’t have it. I think it’s broken already. I had to buy a new one the day after I was released. My phone received more than 2,000 hate messages and unprintable words so I had to really throw it away. It was so painful. Not only me, my son, my second son, because my eldest is a special child with autism but my second son is now a lawyer. 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.
MR: The scale of the attacks was inhumanly possible before. Couldn’t have been possible without social media. It was the first in our country. We know this from the reports we’ve done because we documented the attacks. You were the first. We’ve weathered some, but not on this scale. Also, because you brought your personal life to the public. You had to talk about an affair with your driver. What toll did that take on you?
LDL: Oh, unimaginable toll. Because the labeling is an immoral woman. I had to also be honest with myself. I should be honest with myself because how can I be honest now? 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.
MR: During that time, we now have a phrase for what happened to you. Gaslighting. Some of that stuff. That deflected the attention to you. You were extremely courageous. Where did you find that courage?
LDL: I guess it’s in my genes. My father, especially my late father. I was raised that way.
MR: Moments of fear, moments of weakness. Do you remember any and what did you do?
LDL: No, it’s just really part of my training. My dad, it’s a part and way of raising his children. We would always say, you should be ready for all kinds of situations, with all kinds of circumstances. 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.
MR: You had a chance after you were taken hostage. You had a chance to actually go to house arrest. This was an offer to you. You chose not to. Why?
LDL: House arrest is based on humanitarian grounds. House arrest has no legal basis. But of course, it’s subject to the discretion of the court. Now, house arrest is not based on the merits of the case. To me, it’s not vindication and to me, it would be political accommodation.
I would be owing a political debt to the powers that be. I want to achieve vindication in the proper way, legally, within the justice system, based on the merits, because I’m confident about the merits of my case. I’m confident about my innocence. I must be blunt about this. I don’t want to be in the same category as other leaders who benefitted from those kinds of privileges. House arrest, hospital arrest. I kept on thinking about the conditions or situations of ordinary detainees. Because when you ask for house arrest or hospital arrest, it’s premised on health reasons. Serious health reasons. Yes, I have health issues already because I’m already 64 years old, but not serious health issues. Now, I kept on thinking about the other, the ordinary detainees. How many out there are more qualified to avail themselves of privileges like this because they have worse health conditions than me?
MR: I was surprised when you did this on principle because you could have been in far greater comfort. She held the line in principle and stayed in prison through the rest of January this year because this was offered to you in December last year; January until you were released. Let’s talk about the cases. I know that there are some sub judice rules, but now we’re seeing all seven witnesses just recanted. Aside from that, you had the Philippines, the executive has always talked about the separation between branches of government. Yet, one of the star witnesses said that he was pushed to testify against you by the former secretary of justice, a former justice undersecretary, the prosecutor, the very people who would have been your defense, who should have been making sure that every citizen gets the rights underneath the constitution. Your former secretary of justice let’s talk about these cases and what it’s done to our justice system.
LDL: Okay, so I have three cases. The first two had been dismissed already. One, I was acquitted, and the other one was dismissed on the mirror (14:56:58) because of insufficient evidence. Now this third remaining case, I’m out on bail so the case is still there. But it’s also weak and that’s why I was granted bail because the evidence of guilt is not strong especially so that it was the conspiracy because it’s a case of conspiracy to commit illegal drug trading and conspiracy was not proved by the prosecution. Now, about the recantation. Now actually, there were just about two formal recantations that were accepted by the court. There were two other witnesses, personalities who also recanted but they were never presented in court, but they also talked about coercion. That’s why they also mentioned me. They’ve been pointed to me as a beneficiary of the illegal drug trade. I’m talking about Kerwin Espinoza who said that he was coerced by some police elements. Then there were two late in October who manifested their intention to recant. They testified before.
They implicated me in the illegal drug trade. So, they’re now saying, not true, that they want to recant. And then the latest are the seven. Again, most of them, I think five or six of them testified in this last remaining case. But since it’s only now that they are offering or they have signified their intention to recant, their recantation has not been considered in the grant of bail. In the grant of bail, the judge, after a thorough review of the records and the testimonies found that again, the evidence of guilt was not strong, the prosecution failed to prove the conspiracy, and that it was not enough to frustrate my right to bail. What more if these recantations are considered? These recantations we would assume, and we would expect would now say that what they said about my alleged drug links are all false.
I also anticipate and that is more important to me. They must disclose to us, to reveal to us how this all came about. Who was behind it? Were they really coerced? How were they bribed? Were they threatened? Were their family threatened? Were they promised, let’s say, executive clemency? Or maybe all the above? That’s more important to me in terms of my vindication. I want people to know what exactly happened. I want people to know not only that I’m innocent but because I was a clear victim of persecution. Will you demand accountability? Oh yes.
MR: What does that mean? How would you describe the justice system that put you in prison and where we are today?
LDL: Because you see, Duterte was weaponizing the law. He abused all the executives to get what he wanted. From the judiciary, you know the removal of former Chief Justice Sereno and then what was done to me. Maybe a dismissal of my case at the Supreme Court. I cannot confidently say that Duterte had nothing to do with what happened in those cases. Now, especially in my case? I’m now sure that Duterte was behind the filing of these cases. He ordered certain people to act as handlers of these PDL witnesses. Who by certain reasons, means, or motives were coerced or persuaded to falsely testify against me.
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.
MR: You gathered evidence against then-Mayor Duterte when you were head of the Commission on Human Rights. I was told that the witnesses were ready to go, right? But then the government decided not to move forward with it because he was a key ally of the government at a certain point. Having said that now, right? The ICC, the International Criminal Court, is looking at the Philippines. Would you help the ICC?
LDL: Okay, talking about that. Indeed, since Mr. Duterte has caused a lot of harm to this country especially what happened in his so-called war on drugs, his primary accountability now is with the ICC. I’ve said this already in many of my interviews now that I am willing to cooperate, to assist. 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. And then also when I was the chairperson of the Senate Committee on Justice and Human Rights before I was ousted with most of my colleagues. So, in fact, even if, you know, as much as I can, I intend to pursue this simultaneously. Assisting the ICC and at the same time, pursuing the cases against Duterte for ordering my persecution. My priority is to assist the ICC for justice for the victims and for the families of the victims of the drug war.
That’s my priority. My own cases against Mr. Duterte can probably take a backseat first if really there is some real urgency. I hope this development now about there’s some plan now to consider full cooperation, allowing the ICC probers to come in, which is a good development.
I hope most of the lawmakers would really vote for that measure before the House and ultimately at the Senate. Then if that happens, then it’s going to be a full swing. The investigation by the ICC would be in full swing and there would be some urgency there. Then I can focus on that before pursuing my own case against Mr. Duterte.
MR: What former President Duterte did was wield fear extremely well. I was surprised. I didn’t understand how Marcos the father held power for almost 21 years. Because you need society to acquiesce to a degree and in the case of what I learned from the time with Duterte, fear works. Were you surprised by the silence of your friends? Were you surprised by any of it? And how did you deal with that? Like allies who should have been more vocal. We fell into it as a country. How did this affect you?
LDL: Yes, I was surprised and disappointed. Of course. Mr. Duterte would not be so bold about that weaponization of the law and everything else that he did. If only these leaders, the so-called leaders in the Senate and in the House and others in other institutions were not that pliant to Duterte’s wishes. More voices were needed than to keep it in place or at least to moderate it.
MR: The checks and balances of a democracy. The irony is Adam Schiff in the United States, Representative Adam Schiff, said the same thing. He wrote a book where he said that he was surprised at the complicity. Because in that sense, we allowed it to happen. How would you… I’m sure there were also surprises. Was there generosity of strangers? Were there people who came to your cause that you didn’t expect?
LDL: One realization during my ordeal is you’re now able to know who your real friends are. Not just fair-weather friends. There are, of course, personalities that I expected would be at least sympathetic to me. They’re not there.
But I know that some of my colleagues are sympathetic but cannot just be out in the open expressing their support for me. But it’s truly disappointing because they would have the stature to stand up. They would have what? 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?
MR: Let me ask you very specifically. I mean, you know, Rappler watched all the hearings purposefully. How do you feel about Manny Pacquiao and Dick Gordon today?
LDL: Manny Pacquiao? Very understandable. He was a newbie, a new fight senator. Maybe he was just, you know, he was just prevailed upon by most of our colleagues there to sponsor that resolution for Mayao Stare as the chairperson of that committee. It was understandable. Now, Dick? He should have known better. Maybe had other reasons. But I’d rather not call him out for that, or you typed him for that. But you must have reasons. But unlike Manny, he would have been discerning enough to know then that it was not fair. The treatment that I got from most of them, coming out from my defense, is simply unfair.
MR: How would you describe our politics today and what role do you see yourself taking? Leila Dalima is unleashed now in our politics.
LDL: But of course, I’m updated in the detention area because I received papers. The newspapers every day, and I get to have printed versions of your or Rappler articles. Politics nowadays is exciting. Not yet so turbulent. Maybe as the election period nears, it should become more turbulent. But look what’s happening now, the cracks in the Uniteam.
Then here is Duterte, now offering himself to be the opposition. It’s pathetic to me. It’s a pathetic scene to me. So, I’m not at all right now thinking about politics. But I do have a role. And my role is to continue portraying myself as someone who has been wronged and someone who can continue to inspire others to do what is right, to do what is just.
MR: You seem to have emerged stronger.
LDL: Yes, I…
MR: What lessons do you have if you were to boil to three? How did you come out of this ordeal stronger?
LDL: Faith. I have deepened my faith in God because of my regular prayers, regular Bible reading, and regular contemplative prayers. And then the support of many. Support of friends, allies, and family. And the fact that I…I just… My mindset then is that this is not jail. That’s why I had to keep a strict routine.
MR: You kept a strict routine.
LDL: Daily routine. Yeah. I made myself very busy and of course, the cats.
MR: Avatar. I will remember Avatar.
LDL: Avatar. Yes. The cats. They kept me company. Their role was very significant in keeping me whole and keeping my sanity intact. It’s the mindset, it’s always mind over matter.
MR: Fantastic. Technology and gendered disinformation. Let me pull you back because it isn’t just a problem in the Philippines. Although the women have definitely been attacked. And in 2017, Rappler’s data showed women were attacked at least 10 times more than men online. But what we’ve seen in our research is that gendered disinformation is the beginning of the cracks that attack our democracy. Any insight from having been really the first fully targeted? After you, it was Leni Robredo. We’ve had our fair share of it, right? How did you survive it?
LDL: Unfortunately, the Philippine society is not ready for strong women. There are many women with… There are lots of success stories about women. But we’re not ready. The male-dominated political atmosphere. It’s not yet ready with strong women.
MR: Despite the fact that we’ve had two women presidents, right? Former president Duterte’s rhetoric gave people permission to be their worst selves. His misogynistic statements triggered more.
MR: I really don’t understand it also. It’s simply so frustrating that despite all our efforts and despite the struggles we have, we have people who seem to be swayed by that kind of mentality.
MR: You’ve lived through some of the worst parts of our justice system. What gives you hope for the future? How do we come out of this? Can we come out of this stronger?
LDL: Well, this administration must be just so clear about its respect for the Judiciary. Because our judicial system can truly work if only its independence is upheld. It happens in my case, and it’s happening also to your cases. Your tax evasion cases had been dismissed, right?
MR: Thank God. I empathize.
LDL: Then the judiciary needs to be further strengthened so that there would be greater faith that can be reposed by the people. One way of strengthening the judiciary is appointing truly deserving judges and justices in the higher courts. This administration just must be very clear about its respect. It can always show that this is one of the big differences that it has with the past administration. Because as I said earlier, Duterte has abused his executive powers to get what he wants from the judiciary.
MR: The most powerful executive we’ve had that has twisted the checks and balances or gotten rid of it.
LDL: Yes, because there’s a study. I read about it. There’s a study that under the Duterte administration, there are more cases that registered successes before the Supreme Court compared to previous administrations. The cases filed by the government, or the cases filed against the government had been ruled or resolved in favor of the government compared to past administrations. So, you would see the extent of the hold of Duterte then on the judiciary. I’d like to see that changing and maybe it’s happening now, so it just got to be pursued.
MR: We have to have.. at least I do have faith in the justices, hopefully. Let me throw a big one. The last question for you. The world today is on fire. We have what’s happening in the Ukraine from 2022. We have Gaza, the Middle East is blowing up. And the Philippines and China. It’s a world on fire. And we have to rebuild our institutions in this country. I guess, what do you see moving forward? Not just for the justice system but for the Philippines. For this new generation is coming online at a time when trust is broken.
LDL: Very crucial is the electoral system. Very crucial is the voters’ mentality. We’ve got to elect the right leaders. We’ve got to make sure that the voters realize that. Electing the right leaders is key to reforms. Let’s start with that. And then if we have the right leaders, especially the Executive and in Congress, and then we see presidents who are the appointing authority for the Judiciary, then everything will come into place. It’s about electing the right leaders, those who stand for good governance and for noble aspirations and values.
MR: I agree. Leila De Lima, your last thoughts.
FORMER SENATOR LEILA DE LIMA: I’m back. I cannot say I’m back with 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 reason why I entered politics is because I thought I could really institute some real significant reform, especially in those core areas that I’ve been focusing on. But now that I’m out, they tried to destroy me. They failed to succeed. I’m here again. I’ll pursue the same ideals, the same advocacies. And I hope people will realize that I’m doing that for your sake, not for my sake.
MARIA RESSA: No, thank you. Thank you so much, senator Leila De Lima. Thank you for holding the line. Leila De Lima, out of prison, less than two weeks, stronger than ever. Guys, hold the line. I’m Maria Ressa. Thanks for joining us.