Manila, Philippines – For the past six years, Leila de Lima has been detained at the Philippine National Police headquarters, where she has endured the isolation of a global pandemic, been held hostage during a prison break attempt, and mourned the death of various stray cats that she adopted as her pets and companions.
But she remains defiant.
“I will not give the oppressive boss the satisfaction of being beaten up,” 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 campaign against illegal drugs, which human rights groups say has left thousands dead, mostly poor youth.
She found herself in custody shortly after announcing a Senate investigation into the drug war. Accused of taking drug money while she was secretary of justice, de Lima was arrested on charges that did not warrant release on bail and taken into police custody in Manila.
Now De Lima’s challenge is marked by quiet optimism. Dressed in a bright pink top, beige pants, with a light pink scarf around her neck and a small cross wrapped around a scarf in the palm of her hand, the former senator exudes determined hope, and rightly so.
When Duterte finished his term last year, key witnesses began to recant testimony they had given against him.
Last April, confessed drug trafficker Kerwin Espinosa issued an affidavit and apologized saying that his statements against de Lima were the result of “pressure, coercion, intimidation and serious threats against his life and that of his family.”
Later, prosecution witness Rafael Ragos, who was the officer in charge of the Bureau of Correction in 2012, also recanted 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 accusations against him as “garbage” and cast doubt on Ragos’s motives. “He has already testified against him eight or nine times, including on national television. So suddenly it changes?
“Nothing can destroy the strength of the evidence. Our case against De Lima will not collapse,” Aguirre insisted.
New request for bail
Witness retractions of his testimony are both de Lima’s validation and vindication. In a 2020 interview with Al Jazeera, de Lima called the charges against her “silly ***” and expressed doubt that he would ever get a fair trial while Duterte was in office.
“I have already forgiven them. But I will never forgive the main oppressor, maybe not yet. But I will never forget it, ”he said.
“This (the witness retractions) supports our narrative that the witnesses were bribed, coerced or pressured and that the charges against De Lima are fabricated,” said Filibon Tacardon, De Lima’s attorney.
With Ragos’ testimony retracted, De Lima’s defense team can now request bail, pending resolution of the case. A previous request for bail was denied in June 2020.
De Lima’s arrest and 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 have been strained as the country’s human rights record has deteriorated sharply 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 barring those responsible for his arrest from entering the United States.
Last year, the European Parliament warned that it could withdraw trade privileges with the European Union under the Generalized European Scheme of Preference Plus (GSP+) due to the Philippines’ failure to comply with its human rights obligations.
More than 6,000 Philippine products benefit from GSP+ agreements, which include lower export taxes.
The Philippines’ GSP+ status will expire in 2023.
Earlier this month, supporters called on the current president and son of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos Jr to release de Lima. Marcos Jr won the presidential elections in May of last year.
“Marcos Jr’s main agenda is to clear Marcos’ name from its dark history. It is possible that he is more inclined to curry favor with the international community, unlike Duterte,” said Carlos Conde, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW).
On a state visit to Brussels last year, local media reported that Marcos Jr. was sending signals to the international community that he “will comply with human rights standards.”
Personal grudge, political vendetta
De Lima first earned Duterte’s ire in 2009 when she was head of the Commission on Human Rights in the Philippines investigating drug-related murders in the southern city of Davao, where Duterte was mayor.
When he assumed the presidency in 2016 and the bodies of suspected drug traffickers began to appear on the streets, de Lima opened an investigation in the Senate to investigate the murders, which he considered to be similar to the operations of the so-called Davao Death Squad.
Duterte went on a verbal tirade, relentlessly attacking de Lima and belittling her in his televised speeches.
His legislative allies exposed details of his personal life and intimate relationships. During a live-streamed hearing, she read his home address and cell phone number aloud. The ensuing harassment drove De Lima out of his house.
“It makes one wonder what kind of pleasure Duterte derived from the public torment and private detention he put De Lima through all these years. It was a very deep personal grudge,” Conde told HRW.
Teresita Deles became close friends with de Lima when they both served as cabinet officials in a previous administration and “were the only two women on the security council.”
She and de Lima also shared a love of dance. “The two of us often start group dancing during social gatherings. We invited others to join, but usually only female officers did it,” Deles said with a laugh.
When De Lima was arrested, Deles was a regular visitor. Beyond the friendship they shared, Deles said what happened to De Lima “hit me in a way that I still haven’t gotten over.”
“First it was the flagrant attack on human rights defenders. When the defenders themselves are under attack, where do you go? Then there was a very public attack on her womanhood and the Filipino people didn’t rise up,” said Deles, who began her career as a women’s rights activist.
“I thought that misogyny, that kind of public hate and attack on women would never be accepted again. But people even laughed. I thought to myself, ‘where did we go wrong?’” she added.
When the lockdowns forced everyone to return to their homes, the two exchanged letters delivered by De Lima’s staff. Deles, 75, who is immunocompromised, visited de Lima last December and was pleased to see her friend so encouraged by her.
“They never reached his soul. You have found your center. She will be able to deal with anyone and anything. We need it now more than ever,” Deles said.
Undeterred by his lengthy detention, de Lima hopes to return to defending human rights, beginning by helping the International Criminal Court (ICC) investigation into the war on drugs.
But first, she wants to make up for lost time with her family, namely her mother, who is in her 90s and suffers from dementia, and her two sons, Israel and Vincent.
Some have expressed concern that if he is released, he may be in danger.
But De Lima does not give in. She shakes her head vehemently. “There is simply no substitute for freedom.”