[OPINION] Lawfare and warfare: The blitz against Senator Leila de Lima

I was wondering why at the beginning of Sen Leila’s current odyssey there were not more people who stood up for her. I think I would attribute this to what I have termed elsewhere as Duterte’s “blitzkrieg fascism.”

While at the ground level, Duterte’s panzers rolled over barangays indiscriminately killing people, at the national political level, Duterte and his minions, like the abominably ambitious or simply abominable Richard Gordon, focused their massive firepower on Senator Leila.  Both at the ground level and national level, the aim of Duterte’s panzers was to demonstrate the power of the administration to do anything it wanted and communicate that resistance was futile.

True, the persecution of Sen Leila was to Duterte partly a settling of personal scores, the guy’s getting back at her for daring to investigate him for the Davao Death Squad killings. But, probably more important, it was a campaign undertaken for what social psychologists would call its “demonstration effect” on the citizenry. (READ: PREMEDITATED MURDER: The character assassination of Leila de Lima)

Duterte’s blitzkrieg methods

Let me just share my thoughts on two of Duterte’s blitzkrieg methods that proved so effective. One was the blatantly misogynistic line of attack, characterizing Sen Leila as “an immoral woman.” This was, in a very real sense, a witch hunt, a drive to paint this particular woman who had the gall to stand up to the omnipotent patriarch as the source of all society’s evils. One must admit that it was a stroke of evil genius to dredge up Jurassic age prejudices against women, the primordial Samson and Delilah complex about women leading men astray, that primeval fear that Freud called castration anxiety, and to link these subliminal male terrors to the legal accusations that Senator Leila was a high-level enabler of the drug trade.

Related to this misogynistic psycho-strategy was the sheer effrontery of the plan to paint a former Secretary of Justice as being at the center of the country’s illegal drugs problem. This panzer punch was so bold that it stunned people and, among many of those who did not know Senator Leila, it made them question their initial common sense or instinctive reaction that the accusation was utterly false. (READ: EXPLAINER: What is Leila de Lima being accused of?)

Now those of us who knew Senator de Lima and had worked with her and known first-hand her determination to combat injustice knew the accusations were nonsense. I had the opportunity to work with her briefly in pursuing cases against government officials abroad who were treating our OFWs as sexual prey while I was head of the House of Representatives’ Committee on Overseas Workers’ Affairs, and I was thoroughly impressed with her commitment to rectifying injustice. But for those who had not had my chance to work with her, the panzer punch was so outrageously bold that it psychologically destabilized them and made them question their initial reaction to dismiss the charges against Senator Leila as absurd. 

Those who did not know Senator Leila could perhaps be excused for being stunned by the lies of the President and his minions, and I am sure the good senator will not take this against them. But there were others who knew better but were so worried that the same public crucifixion would happen to them that they remained silent or did not come out to defend her as strongly as they should have. I mention this not to make anyone feel guilty but so we can understand why, despite their being fueled by falsehoods, Duterte’s blitzkrieg tactics have been so effective in stunning people into inaction.

The blitz has lost its punch

But 3 years on, the panzers have run out of fuel. The blitz has lost its punch. The testimony of drug lords who’re willing to admit to anything to escape the full force of the law is ridiculed and dismissed even by pro-Duterte people. The prosecution is having a hell of a time trying to construct a case that would not be ripped to shreds during the first hour in court. Judge after judge has declined to hear the case because their reputations would be forever sullied by the image of them having presided over a kangaroo court. For them, the sight of septuagenarian Supreme Court justices hobbling towards the sunset utterly discredited owing to their allowing themselves to become tools of presidential prejudices and whims, as most did in the case of Chief Justice Sereno, is a fate to be avoided at all costs. (READ: By 2022, Supreme Court filled with Duterte appointees)

But most important, people are coming forward to bear witness to a grave injustice. I know several people who now make it a point to bring up Senator Leila’s case with other people whenever the occasion presents itself. Let me quote one acquaintance here: “Whenever I ride a taxi these days, I make it a point to engage drivers on the political situation, and one of the things I talk to them about is the frame-up of Senator de Lima.” Slowly but surely, the tide is turning, if it has not already turned.

Suggestions for action

I am supposed to provide suggestions on what to do to advance Senator Leila’s release. The legal suggestions I will leave up to our eminent lawyers. I will just mention non-legal initiatives. Bringing up the case of Senator Leila whenever we can, like my friend does with all sorts of people and in all sorts of occasions, is one way of spreading the truth, and with many of us doing this consciously, as in a chain letter, this can work wonders.

Then there is bringing up her case to friends and followers in social media. Of course, you’ll get responses from the usual trolls, but from my experience, over time, these level off while yesses and positive comments become more common. Let’s just be thick-skinned and ignore the trolls, and, from my experience, they trail off – except, of course, in some cases, like that of Human Rights Commission Chair Chito Gascon, who provides a living for hundreds of trolls who are tasked with no other job than to watch and attack him day in and day out.

For educators, Senator Leila is a profile in courage that deserves to be taught in civics classes to our students. For those of us who do a lot of public speaking, there is always a way to connect Senator Leila’s case to your topic without it having the appearance of being pilit, even when you’re talking about, say, globalization, development, or the craziness of Donald Trump.

Then there is the Free Leila de Lima Committee. It is simply waiting to be turned from a network to a mass movement, and perhaps it is this forum that will trigger this transformation.  

Perhaps at the highest rung of these modes of resistance is the solidarity hunger strike, where hundreds, if not thousands, can join the senator in fasting for her release, following the example of Benigno Aquino. The second, that is.

The road ahead

Let us, however, have no illusions about the road ahead of us. Again, let me say that the key obstacle that needs to be surmounted is probably not legal but psychological in nature. Even when they no longer believe in the charges against Senator Leila, many people may still be unwilling to acknowledge this, even to themselves.

On this phenomenon, let me offer the insights of Senator Leila herself in an interview I did with her for Rappler, when I posed the question of why Duterte remained so popular: “That is the misconception we have about democracy. People feel invested in the person they supported, and they do not want to believe that he is capable of destroying an innocent human being because if they admit that, they believe that they also have to admit that they made the wrong choice. I think people aren’t yet prepared for that dose of reality.”

Despite such obstacles, Senator Leila, the country’s leading political prisoner, is confident that ultimately the truth will prevail. Since this is a symposium on lawfare, allow me to end by continuing to invoke the imagery of warfare. Though they were pummeled horribly for years by Hitler’s panzers, through sheer will to persevere, the Russians turned the tide and their own tanks rolled all the way to Berlin. 

Three years in jail have not broken Senator Leila. Ten more years won’t break her. She perseveres in her belief in her ultimate vindication and in her trust that we are the instruments of that vindication, her avenging angels, if you will.

Let us prove ourselves worthy of that trust. – Rappler.com

Walden Bello is a former member of the House of Representatives, where he chaired the Committee on Overseas Workers’ Affairs.  He is currently the International Adjunct Professor of Sociology at the State University of New York at Binghamton.