Leila de Lima: Bloody but unbowed
Interview with Leila de Lima, political prisoner.
On August 21, her 181st day of incarceration and a week short of her birthday, Senator Leila de Lima gave me a wide ranging interview, perhaps the most extensive she has ever given. The last time I saw her was in totally different circumstances, when we faced off as opposing candidates for the Senate at a debate sponsored by Rappler in April 2016. I never imagined that at our next meeting she would be a tightly guarded political prisoner at Camp Crame.
Do you think Duterte will ever give up power?
I do question his psychology and state of mind. You can’t tell what he will do. He’s been charged with crimes against humanity before the International Criminal Court. So it’s hard to see that he will easily relinquish power. I think he is just waiting for the right opening to declare martial law over the whole country. The appointment instead of election of barangay officials must be seen in this light. It could be a step towards martial law or authoritarianism. I don’t know whether to underestimate or overestimate his capacity. It’s very fluid.
What accounts for Duterte’s rise?
Duterte’s rise must be seen in the context of the rise of populism globally. Duterte’s rise was a reaction against decades of neglect and mounting frustrations. People were fed up with the leaders who were educated and came from the elite. It’s time to try a different animal, they thought, even if he is a scoundrel. He struck the right chords, despite his bravado. He speaks a language people understand. He sold himself as anti-corruption, and he branded all those opposed to him as enemies of the state. He definitely managed a good sell of his persona. But with what is now happening, it’s time for people to rethink.
How would you assess your record at the Department of Justice?
I was a political neophyte. I had been an election law practitioner, before I was appointed to be chairperson of the Commission on Human Rights. But I just served two years out of the 7-year term since I was appointed by PNoy to be Secretary of Justice. I was full of idealism and desire to change things in any way I could. But I knew the problems were overwhelming and that PNoy had to focus on the economy. I was tasked to give order to the administration of justice, and as in other areas of public service, there was inefficiency and corruption there. In my own little way as Secretary of Justice, I pushed a number of reforms like revitalizing the network of prosecutors and taking on a number of high profile cases, like the PDAF scam, the Luneta hostage taking, the Atimonan massacre. And I had to go after corrupt prosecutors. The challenge was quite overwhelming. We had areas of successes and areas of failure. The important thing was to make sure democracy was working. One thing I can say is that persecution was not in my agenda, and we never persecuted anyone using the machinery of the executive branch. I don’t think we were remiss in addressing the drug problem, as Duterte’s people claim. We prosecuted people, but we followed the law. We did not engage in extrajudicial killing of suspects.
What are your views on the drug problem?
The basic problem is poverty and inequality. That has to be addressed. The President has exaggerated the danger because he was a single-issue candidate, and it worked with voters. His statement that there are 3 or 4 million users is inaccurate. The Dangerous Drugs Board head said there are only 1.8 million, and this cost him his job because the President had to persist in his narrative that we are a narco-state. It’s propaganda.
Why has Duterte focused on you?
It’s a personal vendetta. He can’t stand my having dared to investigate him in 2009, when I was CHR chair. We had open public hearings on the Davao Death Squad, and we summoned him. He appeared. I told him straight that we were told that he had encouraged the unsolved killings. He has not forgotten nor forgiven me. He got a tape about an interview in Davao where I said that I would prove that there is DDS and he’s behind it. When he became President, he said in a public event that he would make me eat the CD. Second, because I am a woman. He can’t imagine that a woman would dare defy him, much less openly oppose him. His own men and contemporaries in San Beda confirm he can’t stand being contradicted. So what more if a woman opposes him.
He told Congress not to interfere with his war on drugs. On July 13, 2016, when I called for an inquiry, the old wounds resurfaced, and what really angered him was when we presented Edgar Matobato as a witness. I am also an easy target. I don’t belong to any dynasty, have no influential friends, and don’t have any political clout. I made enemies during my stint at the DOJ as SOJ, among them GMA, some senators, and people who belonged to powerful blocs. So no one really came to my defense or my rescue.
Aren’t there people whom that the President listens to?
There are decent people in the Cabinet, like ES Medialdea, and Secretaries Tugade, Evasco, Dureza and Briones, who are in a position to ask the President to stop the killings. But will they do it? These Cabinet members can see the growing outrage, especially over the killing of the student. It’s very clear what’s right and wrong. But they’re scared of the President because he does not like to be contradicted. To me, it’s no surprise that they are fearful of the President. At the same time, they don’t want to take the option of resigning. The constitutional provision is available that if a president is physically or mentally incapacitated, the Cabinet can declare him unfit to discharge his duties. They can have recourse to that. I don’t see anyone in the Cabinet who would even raise the subject. But if they persist in their silence, they are complicit in what is happening.
Is the PNP hopeless?
It’s not really hopeless. But rebuilding the institution will take years since the current crop of police officers have been converted into cold-blooded killers and they’ll be there for two more decades. Reforming the PNP will take more than the usual reforms. A few more years of this would take a toll on the institution. The next president will have his hands full attending to this institution.
What about the military?
To be honest about it, the only remaining institution that is more or less faithful to its constitutional mission is the military. Congress supported the martial law extension and the Supreme Court supported the Marcos burial and provided the legal justification for martial law. I am still trying to pin my hopes though in the Supreme Court, even if 10 or 11 are or will be the president’s own appointees if he serves his term. Congress is very disappointing. It has served as a rubberstamp and lost the opportunity to manifest its ideal role as an independent branch of government. But the military is hanging on, so far. As an institution it refuses to be used in the war on drugs. The President knows his hold on the military is less strong than on the other institutions.
What about the Senate?
The President could not stand me and wanted me out. The majority could not afford to go against the wishes of the President because he has the capacity to make their lives difficult. He has dossiers on each of them and he can use these to harass them. They were scared of the President, but they would not admit that or admit that ousting me was what the President wanted. Some of them are sincere, and as things become more and more unacceptable, some of the others may seize the opportunity to take advantage of the outrage as the tide turns. I have an idea of who are the sincere ones and who are plain opportunists. – Rappler.com
(To be concluded)