Leila de Lima

Leila de Lima, a free woman who won’t forget her causes

Jairo Bolledo

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Leila de Lima, a free woman who won’t forget her causes

THANKSGIVING. Former senator Leila de Lima attends a thanksgiving Mass at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish in Quezon City on February 24, 2024, marking the seventh anniversary of her arrest and incarceration in Camp Crame.

Jire Carreon/Rappler

De Lima has no plans of running in the next polls, but she says she will continue her fight against injustice

MANILA, Philippines – For the first time in seven years, former senator Leila de Lima commemorated the anniversary of her arrest outside the four corners of her detention center.

The Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish in Quezon City was the chosen site of the thanksgiving Mass for De Lima on Saturday, February 24. Activist-priest Robert Reyes dedicated the celebration to De Lima, who has been enjoying provisional liberty since she was allowed by the court to post bail in November 2023.

As De Lima entered the church, supporters greeted and took photos with her. The former senator’s family – her brother, Vicboy, cousins, nephews, and nieces – joined her in the Mass. De Lima’s cousin, Father Manny de Lima Serranilla, also concelebrated the Mass.

THANKSGIVING. Former senator Leila De Lima attends a thanksgiving Mass at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish in Quezon City on February 24, 2024, marking the seventh anniversary of her arrest and incarceration in Camp Crame. Photo by Jire Carreon/Rappler

Reyes took time to share his story about De Lima. Before he was assigned to the Quezon City parish, Reyes used to head what he called “Parokya ni Leila” (Leila’s parish). This “parish” was a makeshift room in De Lima’s detention center in Camp Crame, Quezon City where they used to celebrate Mass when De Lima was still detained. This small space became their “church” for years, where visitors even from other parts of the world, came to show solidarity with De Lima.

“But now, we are happy. Leila is not in jail. We’re celebrating her seventh anniversary of imprisonment not in jail, but outside jail, and soon walking as a free person once the case is dropped. And we pray and we offer this Mass that soon and soon, very soon, that the last case will finally be dismissed,” Reyes said.

The commemoration of De Lima’s arrest coincided with many things. It was a day before the celebration of the peaceful EDSA People Power revolution and Reyes’ 69th birthday.

As Reyes celebrated his own special day, he shared his wish for his dear friend: “I wish [that] the last case be dismissed.”

During his homily, Reyes, who has always been vocal against the war on drugs and other pressing issues, also shared this thoughts about the importance of De Lima’s perseverance.

“The Lord tested me: You better live your life according to how I wish it lived. Live it dangerously. Associate with dangerous people like Leila de Lima, whose dangerous advocacy lands her in jail. And I am not afraid to be jailed, nor I am afraid to die in jail or outside jail the way Leila has lived her life,” he said.

De Lima was detained for exactly six years, eight months, and 21 days. She was arrested over drug charges that stemmed from the accusation that she allegedly enabled the drug trade inside the New Bilibid Prison when she was justice secretary, supposedly to fund her 2016 senatorial campaign. Under former president Rodrigo Duterte, three drug charges were filed against her.

The first drug charge was junked in 2021, while the other was dismissed last May. The third and last drug charge is still pending before Muntinlupa City Regional Trial Court (RTC) Branch 206, but is expected to be decided on this year. De Lima enjoys temporary liberty after Muntinlupa City RTC Branch 206 Presiding Judge Gener Gito granted her bail petition on November 13, 2023.

ALL SMILES. Rev. Fr. Robert Reyes greets De Lima during the thanksgiving Mass for De Lima’s freedom on February 24, 2024. Photo by Jire Carreon/ Rappler
Life inside Crame

After the Mass, De Lima reminisced about her painful journey from arrest to detention.

The former lawmaker said she was at home when she heard about her looming arrest. She was in a hurry, she recalled, not to escape but to make sure she won’t be arrested in her home because she said it would have been painful for her.

She was prepared to be arrested. De Lima packed her things, including her luggage, to be brought to the place of her arrest – within the Senate premises, the place where she spent only less than a year as a sitting senator.

“Of course, that was a most memorable, painful, and revolting day for me. An overwhelming feeling of disbelief and indignation swept over me. Hindi ko maisip, hindi ko matanggap no’ng una na gagawin nila sa ‘kin ‘yon kahit alam naman nila na wala akong kasalanan (I couldn’t believe it, I couldn’t accept at first that they would do that to me even though they know I’m innocent),” De Lima said during her speech.

De Lima recalled how she spent the last seven years inside the PNP’s five-by-eight detention cell.

She lived with minor amenities: a single bed, small table where she wrote and read, a bookshelf that was later filled with books from her friends and supporters. She had no television, no radio, no mobile phone, no internet access – because these devices were prohibited inside.

Shortly after her bail was granted, she came back to her cell to say her goodbyes. At that moment, De Lima said she felt an “indescribable feeling of realization of [her] strength.” De Lima said her detention allowed her to be more introspective, and made her realize the things she is capable of.

“And I pray, I ask for more prayers so permanent freedom can be achieved. I pray for truth, I pray for justice, I pray for accountability, I pray for full vindication,” De Lima said.

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A free De Lima

Three months after her release, De Lima said she already adjusted to the outside world after her nearly seven-year seclusion.

During the first few weeks after her release, De Lima said she struggled to familiarize herself with technology and devices. She had a hard time using a mobile phone, computer, or even navigating the internet. Fortunately she was quick to adapt.

But aside from reconnecting to material things, her release also allowed her to spend more time with her family. De Lima said she was not only robbed of her freedom, but also of the time she should have spent with her loved ones.

Another thing that keeps her busy is her responsibility as the new spokesperson of the once-ruling Liberal Party. The party of late former presidents Corazon Aquino and Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III designated De Lima in December as its new spokesperson.

So ngayon (Now), I’m also becoming visible precisely because of my status as my position as spokesperson of the Liberal Party…So I’ve been extremely busy catching up and then relinking to people that I used to be with and I used to coordinate and interact with,” De Lima told reporters.

But even if De Lima gradually gets her life back and remains in the public eye, the former senator said she will not run in the upcoming 2025 midterm elections. “I have no such plans. Mahihirapan pa ako mag-decide on that (I will have a hard time deciding on that).”

De Lima won a Senate seat during her first try in 2016. She ranked 12th and garnered total votes of 14,144,070. However, she failed in her reelection bid in 2022 and ranked 23rd overall. She campaigned while detained.

Tribute to drug war victims

De Lima has been consistent in her advocacy for human rights, and she made sure this would not be sidelined during her anniversary.

Leila de Lima, a free woman who won’t forget her causes

In a statement, which she also read after the thanksgiving Mass, De Lima paid tribute to victims of the Duterte administration’s bloody war on drugs, noting that injustice continues to persist.

“Injustice continues to cast a long shadow over our nation, its darkness deepened by the countless Filipinos who perished in the brutal war on drugs. Their stories cry out for justice, yet accountability remains an elusive dream. Those responsible walk free, shielded by impunity, while families mourn and communities bear the scars of a senseless tragedy,” De Lima said. “This cannot be our reality.”

De Lima added that her temporary freedom, while cherished, is not the end of the struggle.

“I am a symbol of past injustice, hoping for a future where accountability reigns. My fight for justice does not end with my release. It continues, fueled by the memory of the innocent lost and the yearning for a nation where human rights are respected, power is wielded responsibly, and justice prevails,” she said.

The former senator was not a staunch Duterte critic for no reason.

As a senator, she headed a probe into Duterte’s drug war, which took the lives of at least 6,000 people – 30,000, if vigilante-style killings are included, according to human rights groups. She even presented during a Senate probe self-confessed Davao Death Squad member Edgar Matobato, who confirmed they took orders from Duterte.

After her release in late 2023, De Lima said her priority was to assist the International Criminal Court (ICC) that is probing the killings under Duterte, and help get justice for drug war victims. De Lima said she will help the ICC probe in whatever capacity.

Duterte, the man believed to be behind De Lima’s incarceration, has been making waves again amid speculations about a forthcoming ICC arrest warrant and open clashes with his successor, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.

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Well, dapat talaga mangamba siya. Dapat talaga. Isipan na niya (Well, he should really be worried. He should really be worried and start thinking about it). He has to look into himself and be remorseful about what he did. You know, those are crimes against humanity. Hindi puwedeng hindi niya talaga pananagutan ‘yon. Hindi puwedeng walang accountability (He cannot walk away from accountability, there should be accountability),” De Lima told reporters.

“The day of reckoning, he must confront that.” – Rappler.com

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  1. ET

    What former senator Leila De Lima expected of former President Digong Duterte about the latter’s forthcoming ICC arrest warrant: “He has to look into himself and be remorseful about what he did.” More likely, he would look for a place where he could hide and relish whatever he felt when he ordered the killing of “drug war victims” during his mayorship and Presidency.

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Jairo Bolledo

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