Leila de Lima has passed another of those grim and senseless mileposts: it told her how long she had been in prison (five years on Thursday, the 24th), but not when she could even hope to walk free again.
A victim of vengeance, rather than a subject of proper judicial disposition, she endures punishment on whimsical terms. Her story just has to be told and retold, lest it go the way of much of the nation’s ugly past, forgotten or else falsified in order to prettify it for those who precisely made it ugly.
In Rodrigo Duterte’s repressive presidency, no individual case of injustice is comparable to that done to De Lima. As soon as he took office, he relentlessly went after her, picking up the threads of his vengeance where he had left off, as mayor of Davao City.
As chairperson of the Commission on Human Rights, De Lima had begun investigating Duterte for allegations of death-squad murders during his mayoralty, and carried on upon her election to the Senate. There, a confessed assassin for the squad, Edgar Matobato, testified at a hearing that she had been targeted for assassination during one of her investigatory visits to Davao, escaping only fortuitously – by changing routes.
But, President now, for a term coinciding with her own, and with an enormous majority in Congress, a police force commanded by fawning generals, and a judicial system stacked with amenable judges all the way to the Supreme Court, Duterte easily managed a cross-institutional enlistment in his plot. In short order, his justice secretary and solicitor general herded a choir of life-term drug convicts to testify against her in a case of conspiracy in drug trafficking, his senate was quick to give her up to his police, and his courts summarily denied her bail, such that a mere seven months into his presidency Duterte had her locked away, with not one piece of concrete evidence against her.
With a new president elected in May and Duterte exiting, some credible hope is raised for De Lima, although her chance at regaining freedom possibly lies only with the election of Leni Robredo as president. Robredo is, of course, a party mate, and she has been herself marginalized as vice president under the Duterte regime. She is, in other words, a natural ally to De Lima – who is in fact running for re-election on her ticket – and a presumed antagonist to Duterte.
But De Lima’s case is such an assault on conscience and humanity it takes a special level of moral numbness for anyone to not feel bothered by it. The certified antisocial narcissist that he is, Duterte may have at least a clinical reason, though not necessarily a judicial excuse. But what about the others?
Indeed, two international groups, who themselves have called consistently for De Lima’s release, have raised their voices again, this time on the complementary occasions of her fifth year in detention and the upcoming elections.
“After the killings and impunity that were a hallmark of the Duterte administration’s so called ‘war on drugs,’ human rights must feature front and center in the election campaign agendas of all candidates. This includes the immediate and unconditional release of Senator De Lima, who continues to speak out against grave violations despite five years of unjust detention,” said Rachel Chhoa-Howard, Philippine Researcher of Amnesty International.
And from Brad Adams, Human Rights Watch director for Asia, this: “Senator De Lima’s long-term wrongful detention exemplifies the lawlessness and cruelty of the Duterte administration.… Candidates for president should commit to free De Lima immediately and to rebuild the Philippines’ tarnished criminal justice system to meet international standards.”
Among those candidates, only Robredo meets the standards. She has in fact fought for De Lima from the outset, and now holds her up as the face and name for her platform for justice and human rights.
Two colleagues of De Lima’s in the Senate who are now running for president – Manny Paquiao and Ping Lacson – could have done something for her right there, if only in the spirit of fellowship; after all, under the democratic arrangement of separation of powers, the Senate is meant to stand independent from, if not adversarial to, the president. But not only did Lacson and Paquiao not stand independent nor apart nor simply aside, they led the majority in feeding De Lima to Duterte.
Conveniently on his part, Isko Moreno was relatively too minor a public figure to matter weighing in on the issue – he was a Duterte appointee at a state railways corporation. But when he declared for the presidency, capitalizing on an enhanced profile as mayor of Manila, and himself began mouthing slogans for justice and human rights, but without so much as a mention of De Lima’s name, he only added another hypocritical voice to those of Pacquiao and Lacson.
As for candidate Ferdinand Marcos Jr., he is an absolute negative in the moral equation. – Rappler.com