Manila, Philippines – For the past six years, Leila de Lima has been detained in the Philippine National Police headquarters, where she has endured the isolation of a global pandemic, been taken hostage during an attempted prison break, and mourned the death of several stray cats that she adopted as her pets and companions.
But she remains defiant.
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“I will not give the chief oppressor the satisfaction of being beaten,” de Lima, 63, told Al Jazeera in an interview, referring to former President Rodrigo Duterte.
The former senator has always been an outspoken critic of Duterte and his state-sanctioned crackdown on illegal drugs that rights groups say left thousands of, mostly poor, young men dead.
She found herself detained shortly after announcing a Senate investigation into the drug war. Accused of taking drug money while she was justice secretary, de Lima was arrested on non-bailable charges and placed in police custody in Manila.
Now, de Lima’s defiance is marked by a calm optimism. Dressed in a bright pink blouse, beige trousers, with a light pink scarf around her neck and a small cross wrapped around a handkerchief in her palm, the former senator exudes determined hopefulness — with good reason.
As Duterte wrapped up his term last year, key witnesses began retracting testimony they had made against her.
Last April, self-confessed druglord Kerwin Espinosa issued an affidavit and apology saying that his statements against de Lima were the result of “pressure, coercion, intimidation and serious threats to his life and his family”.
Later, prosecution witness Rafael Ragos, who was an officer-in-charge of the Bureau of Corrections in 2012, also retracted earlier court testimony in which he said he had delivered money from drug lords to de Lima. Ragos claimed that his testimony was “false” and coerced by Duterte’s justice secretary Vitaliano Aguirre.
Speaking to Al Jazeera, Aguirre dismissed the allegations against him as “trash” and cast doubt on Ragos’s motives. “He already testified against her eight or nine times, even on national television. Then he suddenly changes?”
“Nothing can destroy the strength of the evidence. Our case against de Lima will not crumble,” Aguirre insisted.
New bail petition
The witnesses’ retractions of their testimony are both validation and vindication for de Lima. In a 2020 interview with Al Jazeera, de Lima called the charges against her “bulls***” and expressed doubt that she could ever get a fair trial while Duterte was in office.
“I have forgiven them already. But I will never forgive the chief oppressor — maybe just not yet. But I will never forget,” she said.
“This [witness retractions] supports our narrative that the witnesses were bribed, coerced, or pressured and that the charges against de Lima are manufactured,” said Filibon Tacardon, a lawyer for de Lima.
With Ragos’s testimony retracted, de Lima’s defence team can now petition for bail, pending resolution of the case. A previous petition for bail was denied in June 2020.
De Lima’s detention and the bloody crackdown on illegal narcotics continue to be condemned by multiple human rights groups and foreign governments.
Diplomatic relations between the Philippines and the United States and Europe became strained as the country’s human rights track record dramatically deteriorated during Duterte’s six years in power.
In 2019, the US passed a resolution invoking the Global Magnitsky Act, demanding de Lima’s release and those responsible for her detention to be banned from entering the US.
Last year, the European Parliament warned that it might withdraw trade privileges with the European Union under the European Generalized Scheme of Preference Plus (GSP+) because of the Philippines’s noncompliance with its human rights obligations.
More than 6,000 Philippine products benefit from the GSP+ arrangements, which include lower taxes on exports.
The GSP+ status of the Philippines will expire in 2023.
Earlier this month, supporters called on current president and son of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos Jr to release de Lima. Marcos Jr won the presidential election in May last year.
“Marcos Jr’s main agenda is to cleanse the Marcos name of its dark history. He may be more inclined to curry favour with the international community, unlike Duterte,” said Carlos Conde, senior researcher for Human Rights Watch (HRW).
In a state visit to Brussels last year, local media reported Marcos Jr to be sending signals to the international community that he “will comply with human rights standards”.
Personal grudge, political vendetta
De Lima first earned Duterte’s wrath in 2009 when she was head of the Commission on Human Rights in the Philippines and investigated drug-related killings in the southern city of Davao, where Duterte was mayor.
When he became president in 2016 and corpses of alleged drug dealers began turning up on the street, de Lima opened a Senate investigation to look into the killings, which she felt resembled the operations of the so-called Davao Death Squad.
Duterte unleashed a verbal tirade, relentlessly attacking de Lima and belittling her in his televised speeches.
His legislative allies exposed details of her personal life and intimate relationships. During a livestreamed hearing, her home address and cell phone number were read out loud. The ensuing harassment drove de Lima out of her home.
“It makes one wonder what kind of pleasure Duterte derived from the public torment and private detention he made de Lima go through all these years. It was a personal grudge that ran deep,” said HRW’s Conde.
Teresita Deles became close friends with de Lima when they both served as cabinet officials under a previous administration and “were the only two women in the security council”.
She and de Lima also shared a love for dance. “The two of us often started the group dancing during socials. We would invite the others to join, but it was usually only the women officials who would,” Deles said with a laugh.
When de Lima was arrested, Deles was a regular visitor. Apart from the friendship they shared, Deles said that what happened to de Lima “hit me in ways that I still have not gotten over”.
“First was the blatant attack on human rights defenders. When defenders themselves are under attack, where do you go? Then there was the very public attack on her womanhood and the Filipino people did not rise up,” said Deles, who began her career as a women’s rights activist.
“I thought the misogyny, that kind of public hatred and attack on women would never be accepted again. But people were even laughing. I thought to myself, ‘where did we go wrong?’” she added.
When lockdowns forced everyone into their homes, the two exchanged letters delivered by de Lima’s staff. Deles, 75, who is immunocompromised, visited de Lima last December and was happy to see her friend in high spirits.
“They never got to her soul. She has found her centre. She will be able to stand up to anyone and anything. We need her now more than ever,” said Deles.
Undeterred by her prolonged detention, de Lima hopes to return to human rights advocacy, starting with helping out in the International Criminal Court (ICC) investigation of the drug war.
But first, she wants to make up for lost time with her family, namely, her mother, who is in her 90s and suffering from dementia, and her two sons, Israel and Vincent.
Some have expressed worry that if she is granted release, she may find herself in danger.
But de Lima is unbowed. She shakes her head vehemently. “There is simply no substitute for freedom.”