Ex-Senator politically imprisoned for years remains defiant in the Philippines, champions women’s empowerment

Later, a witness in the 2016 Senate investigation into Duterte’s drug war revealed that Duterte had ordered my assassination to halt the CHR investigation. 

  • 2 months ago
  • May 21, 2024
10 min read
Leila de Lima, a former senator and human rights commissioner, was arrested in 2017, months after she had launched a Senate inquiry into then-President Duterte’s brutal anti-drug crackdown. | Photo courtesy of George Buid Leila de Lima, a former senator and human rights commissioner, was arrested in 2017, months after she had launched a Senate inquiry into then-President Duterte’s brutal anti-drug crackdown. | Photo courtesy of George Buid
Leila de Lima is a Philippine politician, lawyer, human rights activist, and law professor who previously served as a Senator of the Philippines from 2016 to 2022.
Journalist’s notes
Leila de Lima, born on August 27, 1959, is a Filipina politician, lawyer, human rights activist, and law professor who previously served as a Senator of the Philippines from 2016 to 2022. She was the chairperson of the Commission on Human Rights from 2008 to 2010 before joining President Benigno Aquino III’s cabinet as Secretary of Justice from 2010 to 2015.
Known as a vocal critic of President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration, she was arrested in 2017 on charges linked to the New Bilibid Prison drug trafficking scandal during her tenure as Justice Secretary. Later that year, she was awarded the Prize for Freedom by the Liberal International. She remained in pretrial detention until November 13, 2023, although she continued to serve out her remaining term as senator and filed legislation while in custody.
In November 2023, a Philippine court granted bail to a former senator, Leila de Lima, who had been imprisoned for over six years on drug charges she claimed were concocted to silence her inquiries into then-President Rodrigo Duterte’s aggressive campaign against illegal drugs.
For years, the European Union Parliament, certain American lawmakers, and United Nations human rights experts had been pushing for the release of Leila de Lima, who was arrested while serving as an opposition senator in February 2017. They argued that her detention was politically motivated by Duterte and his supporters, representing a significant threat to Philippine democratic principles.
Read more: Leila de Lima, Duterte Critic, Is Released on Bail in the Philippines – The New York Times (nytimes.com)

SAN JUAN, Philippines — During my nearly seven-year detention, I endured a challenging struggle, both mentally and physically, particularly because I was innocent. Despite being a Senator, my position offered no shield against the harassment and persecution by the Duterte government. Although constitutional protections exist against government abuse, I became the most vilified person in the Philippines, subjected to slut-shaming and stripped of my dignity.

I stood practically alone, engulfed by a political storm. Allies and friends could not fully support me or stand against President Duterte’s actions as they feared government reprisals. The House investigation and the filing of fabricated drug cases were part of President Duterte’s campaign against me. Many individuals and groups colluded with his government to produce false witnesses and evidence. Later, a witness in the 2016 Senate investigation into Duterte’s drug war revealed that Duterte had ordered my assassination to halt the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) investigation. 

Read more stories from the Philippines at Orato World Media.

From election lawyer to human rights champion 

I started my legal career as an election lawyer, representing local and national politicians in the Philippines. It felt fulfilling to advocate for non-traditional politicians who dared to challenge the status quo. However, my journey took an unexpected turn when President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo appointed me to lead the Commission on Human Rights (CHR), the country’s primary human rights institution.

This role marked a significant shift from my previous focus on election law. During my tenure at the CHR, I led the 2009 investigation into then Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte and the alleged Davao Death Squad (DDS). It marked my first encounter with Duterte, and it quickly became apparent that he would be a challenging figure to manage during the inquiry.

Despite Duterte’s attempts to influence the direction of the investigation, we maintained the integrity of the process. The public sessions served as preliminary hearings. We took the more sensitive testimonies behind closed doors to safeguard the witnesses’ identities. Duterte’s thinly veiled threats toward these witnesses underscored the tense atmosphere of the investigation. 

The situation escalated when we conducted an ocular inspection of the purported DDS dumping ground in Davao City, where we discovered human skeletal remains. This finding felt like a grim testament to the seriousness of the allegations.

My commitment to human rights was further tested when I was appointed Secretary of Justice by President Benigno Aquino III. In this capacity, I found myself in the difficult position of pursuing charges against my former appointer, President Arroyo, for election offenses. The political landscape shifted dramatically, and I believe that Arroyo’s lingering resentment towards me contributed to the House investigation. This investigation led to the filing of fabricated drug charges against me at the beginning of the Duterte Administration.

Fighting corruption: facing persecution in high-profile cases 

In 2010, President Aquino appointed me Secretary of Justice, even though I did not support his candidacy. I heard the former Supreme Court Chief Justice recommended me for the position. During my tenure as Justice Secretary, I pursued significant cases that resulted in making several enemies. 

I played a key role in arresting and charging former President Macapagal-Arroyo for election offenses. Additionally, I brought charges against three senators and several congressmen for plunder and graft, including political allies of President Aquino. I also acted against corrupt executives within the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI), removing them from their positions. Even though I was politically targeted from the bloc-voting religious group Iglesia Ni Cristo, I initiated investigations into kidnapping complaints involving their top officials. 

Later, as a Senator under President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration, I faced intense persecution. I faced fabricated drug cases and harassment, including assassination orders to halt my investigations into human rights abuses. Later, while imprisoned, I continued to fulfill my duties as much as I could.

During the pandemic, I sought to participate in Senate deliberations and voting online. I argued that as the pandemic shifted work to virtual, there was no justification to bar me from doing the same from prison. However, my requests were denied by the Senate leadership and the courts. This reflects the absolute nature of tyranny, where neither the legislative body I served, nor the judiciary would challenge the implicit executive order to silence me. Nevertheless, I persisted, introducing resolutions and bills and issuing statements against the ongoing extrajudicial killings (EJKs), corruption, and abuses of the Duterte Administration. 

Reflections on seven years of detention: perseverance, struggle, and growth 

Reflecting on my nearly seven-year ordeal of detention, I recognize it as a period marked by both profound struggle and significant personal growth. I experienced mental and physical tribulations, maintaining my innocence throughout. Yet, this crucible truly tested and fortified my limits of perseverance and dedication.

Throughout this time, I stood firm in my resolve, knowing that truth was my ally. I endured pain and upheaval, including my mother’s health scare at 91. My children and grandchildren reached milestones in my absence. I faced the isolating grip of the pandemic, but remained steadfast. The pandemic’s restrictions only intensified my isolation, cutting me off from family, and friends. It also disconnected me from the broader community of human rights and democracy advocates.

After nearly seven years in jail, Leila de Lima, a prominent critic of former Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, was granted bail in November 2023. | Photo courtesy of George Buid

One harrowing moment brought me face-to-face with death itself as I was held at knifepoint, leaving me with nothing but prayer and acceptance of my fate. During this period, there were missed opportunities to be present for friends and loved ones in their final moments. I was unable to attend wakes and funerals or offer solace to grieving families.

Yet, it was also a time of clarity, revealing the unwavering support and concern of true friends and allies. It was a moment to cherish life’s small blessings, those often overlooked, and to discern what truly matters from the superfluous. Emerging from this chapter, I have not only survived persecution under President Duterte but have emerged stronger. I now have a renewed appreciation for the resilience of the human spirit.

Recommitting to justice, human rights, and women’s empowerment 

Once freedom is lost, it becomes invaluable. Regaining my freedom, I cannot squander it on personal leisure; it’s too precious, especially given those who supported me during my imprisonment. I stopped receiving a salary in June 2022 and was only released on bail in November 2023, so my time in jail financially drained me and I must continue to work.

Now, I pack my schedule with speaking engagements at graduations, conferences, seminars, and human rights events, including those for families of EJK victims (extrajudicial killing). I am determined to actively contribute to the International Criminal Court (ICC’s) prosecution of Duterte and his associates in The Hague for their crimes against humanity. I aim to assist the ICC and any entity seeking to investigate Duterte’s drug war, ensuring accountability and preventing such tragedies from recurring. 

After overcoming modern forms of enslavement and achieving greater humanity, friends and comrades have paid a heavy price in the battle for human dignity. This fight aims to realize our full human rights, which are essential for reaching our true potential. My commitment to justice, human rights, and women’s empowerment remains unwavering. I will continue to fight for these causes, as the freedom I now enjoy is not just for me but also a debt owed to the many who stood by me.  

The resilience and unity of Filipino women against President Duterte’s misogynistic rule 

In the Philippines, Filipino women primarily led the struggle against Duterte’s regime, which was underpinned by a misogynistic and anti-women philosophy. This regime, supported by a movement echoing the same sentiments, marked itself with sexist and male chauvinist attitudes. It could be seen as the dying breaths of gerontocratic patriarchy in the nation. Duterte himself became the embodiment of this ideology. He further directed his administration’s actions and assaults specifically against women and the feminist movement.

Consequently, the resistance against Duterte and his policies naturally evolved into a predominantly female-led endeavor. While there were male allies, women formed the core of the fight against the attempt to regress the country’s progress on women’s rights. Duterte’s ambition seemed to want to reset the advancements made by the women’s movement in the Philippines. This included reducing women to derogatory stereotypes and attempting to erase a century’s worth of progress toward gender equality.

However, the efforts to undermine the liberation of women were in vain. The emancipation of women in the Philippines had become an irreversible reality a century ago. Any attempts to reverse this progress only served to strengthen the resolve and solidarity of those fighting for women’s rights. This struggle has not only been a testament to the resilience of Filipino women. It is also a part of a larger global tapestry where women stand united across borders.

Advocating for human rights: a political struggle for global equality  

The defense of human rights constitutes a political endeavor. It involves a legal battle challenging the prevailing oppressive and repressive systems that deny the rights of individuals and minority groups. Marginalized voices struggle against the absolute power wielded by a privileged few. This power is often led by populists, demagogues, or strongmen prioritizing narrow social and economic interests. In doing so, they suppress dissenting voices and alternative discourses seeking to expand democracy and uphold fundamental human rights. 

Our fight for human rights cannot be separated from the broader context of global political and social transformation. We envision a world where every individual can live with dignity and realize their unique talents and creative potential. For younger generations of human rights defenders, this vision shapes the future they aspire to inhabit. Meanwhile, those of us from older generations dream of passing on this vision to our grandchildren. 

It is crucial to recognize that advocating for human rights is inherently political. Our cause is not neutral; it is a fierce struggle against national systems that wield state power for domination rather than equality. As we move forward, we must remain aware of the risks inherent in our chosen path. Drawing inspiration from icons like Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, and Cory Aquino, we learn from their peaceful, non-violent methods. They have shown us a better world—one where human rights prevail—and equipped us with the means to achieve it.

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