The writer signs a billboard inside the senator’s office. (Staff photo)


An empty chair waits for its imprisoned occupant

By Ted Alcuitas
Editor & Publisher

Last month, Ted Alcuitas travelled to the Philippines on vacation and took time to observe the current situation in the country. He attempted to visit the imprisoned Senator Leila de Lima but was not successful, allegedly because he is not a holder of a Philippine passport. Instead, he visited the senator’s office and took time to sit on one senate committee hearing.

Here is his story from Manila, Philippines.

The Senator’s chair with her favourite scarf sits empty in the office. (PCN photo)

Inside Room 342 in the Philippine Senate sits an empty chair.

It is the office of Senator Leila de Lima, arguably the Philippines most famous political prisoner.

On February 24, 2018 she will have served one year in prison.

How did a fast-rising star in the political firmament became a disgraced prisoner?

De Lima’s ordeal begun before today’s current President was elected.

Back in 2009, Rodrigo Duterte was the mayor of the southern city of Davao and de Lima was chair of the Commission on Human Rights.

She had the guts to not only go to Davao to investigate the so-called Davao Death Squads (DDS) but to also publicly berate Duterte for his seeming ignorance of the killings.

That made her a marked person on Duterte’s crosshairs.

De LIma at her arrest in February 2017 tries to wave to supporters. Soldiers prevented her from waving by holding her arms. (Reuters photo)

When Duterte became president in 2016, de Lima was also elected a senator and soon became chair of the powerful Senate committee on justice and human rights.

In mid-July 2016, barely a month after the election, she
introduced a resolution calling for an investigation of the extrajudicial killings (EJKs) under Duterte’s ‘drug war’.

This was followed by an announcement that the Senate would conduct an inquiry on EKJs and her fate was sealed.

The President accused her of being at the centre of a “drug matrix” that was responsible for the drug trade in the New Bilibid Prison after she presented surprise witness Edgar Matobato, a confessed hitman of the DDS.

The charge was patently trumped-up because De Lima was known to be the one who exposed the problem and conducted the only successful raid on the penitentiary.

A complicit Senate and House of Representatives, both controlled by Duterte, dismissed the testimony of Matobato but instead accepted the testimonies of convicted felons serving life sentences against De Lima.

These ‘special’ witnesses were granted privileges in prison, with electronic gadgets, cell phones, air-conditioning units, internet use, smart television sets – privileges not granted to Senator de Lima.

The vendetta against the 58-year old senator included accusations of alleged extra-marital affairs with her driver. The House ‘boys’ apparently showed great pleasure in watching a so-called sex video of De Lima and her boyfriend.

In addition, she and four others have been charged with conspiring with Muslim officials to free members of the Abu Sayyaf Group bandit group (ASG) from jail.

The Office of the Ombudsman dismissed the case on December 13, 2017.

This was followed by the rejection of three ethics cases against de Lima by the Senate on February 20 for lack of jurisdiction.

“With truth on my side, I know that I will be vindicated in time. Sa paglipas ng mga araw, lalong lumilinaw na inosente ako, biktima ng matinding panggigipit. Sa huli, tiwala akong malilinis ang aking pangalan mula sa lahat ng imbentong paratang sa akin ng rehimeng ito,” she said.

De Lima, who will soon mark her first year of illegal arrest and unjust detention on Feb. 24, lauded her Senate colleagues for allowing a “high sense of fairness and objectivity” to finally triumph in handling the preposterous ethics complaints filed against her.

“I thank my colleagues for standing up for reason and the clear provision of the rules. It is now evident, as I’ve always maintained, that the cases filed against me were frivolous and were merely filed to harass me,” she said.

“I hope that somehow I have proven my doubters and detractors wrong. From the very start, I have always kept my innocence and in due time, hopefully soon, I will be vindicated from all the fabricated charges, especially the drug cases, filed against me,” she added.

Still a sitting senator
Despite being incarcerated and stripped of any privileges, De Lima is still a sitting senator and maintains a full complement of senatorial staff.
From her cell, she communicates by hand-written notes which her staff picks up and types and circulates through social media. Those notes are book-bound by the staff and sits on her desk.

In addition, she is briefed on senate proceedings but cannot participate in debates because she is not provided the electronic means.

World recognition

Her incarceration did not prevent international bodies to recognize her achievements.

Among them, she was recognized as the Leading Global Thinker in 2016 and 2017 and the Prize For Freedom by Liberal International in October last year. It is the federation’s highest human rights honor. De Lima is the second Filipino to obtain the award after former President Corazon Aquino in 1987.

Amnesty International awarded her the Women Human Rights Defenders for 2017 and chosen by Time Magazine as the Top Most Influential People for 2017.

In solitary and in peace

She is under solitary confinement and under close watch surrounded by a 12-feet high wall with barbed wires on top. Her visitors are frisked, patted down, sanitized and not allowed to take pictures. A closed circuit tv in the receiving room records every happening.

From 5 o’clock in the afternoon to the next morning, she is cut off from the rest of humanity, “with only the steady whirr of an electric fan to keep her company”.

Alone in her cell for most of the year now, she confides to a visitor that she is ready to face her destiny and has “found true peace in the narrow confines of isolation”.

Will Duterte make good his promise to ‘destroy’ Senator De Lima and how?

Is he going to do a ‘Ninoy’?

We threw this question to the embattled senator’s chief of staff when we saw him in Vancouver last December.

Atty. Philip Sawali who has worked for the senator for many years, thinks Duterte will not do the unthinkable – order the killing of Senator De Lima.

Another Philippine senator – Benigno ‘Ninoy’ Aquino, Jr. was assassinated on August 21, 1983 on what many believed was ordered by the dictator Ferdinand Marcos.

Aquino was Marcos’ fiercest critic just as De Lima is Duterte’s fiercest critic today.

The two cases has eerie parallels:

Ninoy was imprisoned and was released for ‘medical reasons’ and allowed to go abroad only to be killed when he returned.

When de Lima called for an investigation into President Rodrigo Duterte’s bloody drug war, he retaliated with a verbal tirade that included threats to make her cry, throw her in jail and destroy her.

Duterte, known to bristle at any kind of criticism, made good on his first two promises. But from her detention cell at police headquarters, Sen. Leila De Lima has vowed not to give him the satisfaction of the third.

Three days from now on February 24, she will have been in solitary for 365 days and counting.

Will she ever return to her empty chair?