The best way to understand Senator Leila de Lima is to know that she is the eldest daughter of Vicente de Lima Sr., a Comelec commissioner from 1992 to 1994. Prior to his appointment by President Corazon C. Aquino, Commissioner De Lima was executive director of the Comelec, a member of the Camarines Sur provincial board, and a practicing lawyer. Serving with Christian Monsod as Comelec chair, Commissioner De Lima belonged to a Comelec that was described as an election body that knew how to count. He was a true public servant, a paragon of integrity and commitment that all government officials must emulate.
Raised by her father and mother Norma Magistrado in Iriga City, Camarines Sur, Senator Leila finished her elementary and high school education as valedictorian in La Consolacion Academy. She then took up history at the De La Salle University and law at the San Beda College of Law where she graduated salutatorian in 1985. She placed eighth in the 1985 bar exams and then went on to work with Supreme Court Associate Justice Isagani Cruz from 1986 to 1989. After that, Senator Leila became one of the country’s top elections lawyers until public service beckoned.
Speaking truth to power
De Lima gained currency in the public sphere during her stint as the chairperson of the Commission on Human Rights. Her achievement in that office was to make CHR and human rights household terms. Since the organization of the CHR under the 1987 Constitution, it was the first time that the media paid attention to the institution and its important work of investigating human rights violations committed by state security forces and public officials.
Ironically, one of De Lima’s most celebrated investigations involved her own appointing official’s favorite general, Jovito Palparan, who was eventually convicted by a regular court. This CHR investigation illustrated De Lima’s independent streak. She did not owe anybody, not even her appointing authority, when it came to performing her mandate. Eventually, as secretary of justice, she was to cause the imprisonment of Gloria Arroyo herself, an act that would have earned the eternal ire of Arroyo considering that she started De Lima’s career in public service.
Of course, De Lima’s most celebrated investigation as CHR Chairperson was that of the Davao Death Squad conducted in 2009. Farthest from her mind seven years later, in 2016, was that it was also going to be the cause of her imprisonment when the alleged founder of the DDS, Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte, was elected president. During that investigation in 2009, Duterte invited De Lima to a private meeting several times — others would call it an invitation to a dinner date – in an attempt to charm De Lima to go slow on her Davao investigation.
Duterte is known for such tactical moves, before he moves on to more persuasive methods, like ordering the DDS to finally ambush and murder De Lima during her ocular investigation of the DDS killing fields at the Laud firing range inside the Barangay Ma-a Quarry, according to confessed DDS assassin Edgardo Matobato.
As expected, De Lima chose to maintain her independence as investigator, and politely turned down Duterte’s overtures. Duterte took this as an outright snub of his charm offensive which he never forgot for the rest of the years to come, until finally he had the power to claim payback from De Lima. The payback was merciless. But De Lima endured it, and continues to endure.
Senator Leila is the most prominent political prisoner of the Duterte regime. Unjustly detained, this is her fifth birthday in jail for crimes she did not commit.
The pandemic has been especially hard on her. Depending on the quarantine level imposed on the NCR, she is no longer allowed the usual stream of visitors that she welcomed at her detention place every afternoon before the pandemic. Her visitors nowadays are limited to her family, doctors, priests, and lawyers, and only at designated times and days. She now spends a lot of her time mostly alone in her cell, almost five years after the Muntinlupa courts gave credence to the affidavits of convicted criminals and ruled that there is probable cause to order her arrest without bail. Being imprisoned is hard for anyone, but it is several times more difficult for someone who knows that she is innocent. Nonetheless she has performed her senatorial duties with diligence and excellence, filing bills and participating in legislative debates to the best she can.
One of Duterte’s favorite spiel is that he is willing to go to prison for all the crimes he has committed, particularly the summary executions he ordered in his administration’s drug war, so long as he knows that he has done it supposedly for the good of the country. However, he continues to resist any investigation of the International Criminal Court (ICC), and declared that he will never let himself be arrested and detained by the ICC.
Unlike him, De Lima has lived her words, and actually is in prison for her beliefs and what she believes should be done to wake up a people who has accepted the everyday killing of human beings as the mundane routine of Duterte’s drug war. She will never accept the normalcy of extrajudicial killings, even of the most marginalized and despised members of the community, the so-called drug addicts, pushers, and criminals, executed without trial and without any opportunity to defend themselves.
A kinder, gentler country
On one hand, Duterte said so many times that he is willing to go to prison for killing Filipinos so long as it is for the good of the country. On the other hand, De Lima is actually in prison for trying to save those targeted by Duterte’s PNP and vigilante death squads. No one seems to appreciate her sacrifice for the thousands of lives lost in Duterte’s drug war, and the thousands of children and wives orphaned and widowed. Time will tell whether fighting for the right to live of those who are seen as the dregs of society is even worth it, at a time when almost nobody really cares, for one to dare to be the voice in the wilderness.
De Lima decided to be the voice in the wilderness at a time when the wolves came, to stop the killings and to save as many lives as she can. She went to jail for that. As a senator, and in whatever position or capacity she may yet choose to be after she is released from prison, it is a given that De Lima will continue to fight for the people. She already proved this by going to prison. Without doubt she will even lay down her own life, after already offering almost five years of her freedom so that people condemned to death in Duterte’s drug war will have a chance to live.
Senator Leila is working for a better Philippines. She is committed to make the future of our country bright. This is personal to her because she has children and grandchildren to whom she wants to leave a Philippines that is kinder and gentler, where human rights is always respected.
On August 27, her sixty-second birthday, and on May 9, 2022, election day, let us remember the courageous Leila De Lima. People like her make our country worth dying and living for. – Rappler.com
Tony La Viña is the Executive Director of Manila Observatory. He also teaches law and is former dean of the Ateneo School of Government.