Mortal enemies: De Lima vs. Duterte (Photo composite by Asia News Network)
De Lima, the first prominent political prisoner under Duterte administration, maintained that her continued detention is caused, not because she is guilty of the drug-related offenses filed against her, but vengeance of a power-hungry President.
“Let me say it again: I am INNOCENT of the trumped-up drug charges against me. I may not be a perfect person, but I have never betrayed my duty as a public servant,” she said.
“And if anyone would take a serious look at the details of my cases, including the ludicrous perjured testimonies of the so-called witnesses against me – they will see that I am merely a victim of political persecution,” she added.
De Lima’s statement was read by her brother Vicente de Lima II before the more than 1,100 delegates of the recent “International Forum on Lawfare: Weaponizing the Law against Democratic Dissent” held at De La Salle University, Manila last Feb. 21.
Despite her three years in detention, De Lima, who chairs the Senate Committee on Social Justice, Welfare and Rural Development, vowed to continue shepherding measures needed to uplift the quality of life of Filipinos, especially the poor.
Even under harsh living and working conditions, the lady Senator from Bicol has faithfully and diligently pursued her legislative mandate despite not having access to much needed work-related tools and gadgets.
To date, she has authored and co-authored 68 bills and 31 resolutions in the 18th Congress. In the 17th Congress, she principally authored bills that were signed into law, such as the Magna Carta of the Poor and the institutionalization of the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program (4Ps).
“The country saw that despite the persecution that I have been subjected to in the past three years, my spirit remains unbroken and our legislative accomplishments remain unhindered,” the lawmaker pointed out.
“Duterte and his merry band of trolls may continue their vile narrative towards me, but the country and the world are seeing through the smoke and mirrors regarding my situation,” she added.
In the past year, De Lima has continued to obtain international support, foremost of which was the adoption of a bipartisan resolution by the United States Senate seeking sanctions against officials involved in orchestrating her arrest and prolonged detention.
The US Senate Resolution 142 also called for the invocation of the Global Magnitsky Act against State actors who are also involved on the extrajudicial killings under the Duterte administration’s campaign against illegal drugs.
In December last year, US President Donald Trump also signed into law the US Fiscal Year 2020 State and Foreign Operations Appropriations Bill which includes a provision urging the US State Department to ban Philippine government officials responsible for De Lima’s wrongful imprisonment from entering US territories.
However, the multiple cases filed against De Lima are progressing at a snail’s pace. As of this writing, six Muntinlupa Regional Trial Court judges have either recused themselves from hearing her drug cases or have opted for early retirement.
Last January, the Supreme Court dismissed her petition for the writ of habeas data against Mr. Duterte whom it deemed immune from suit. De Lima’s legal camp has filed a motion for reconsideration.
Despite her continued persecution, De Lima has refused to waver in her conviction. In a Keynote Address at an international forum last Feb. 21, De Lima has declared herself as “free”.
“Today, I declare myself free. For though I may be physically detained, my mind is freer than it has ever been; my dignity is intact; and my will to fight to protect the freedom and interests of the Filipino people is stronger than ever,” she said.
“Thus, I am not a victim. I am not merely a survivor. I am not just a fighter. I am a defender,” she added. (30)
The Senator’s chair with her favourite scarf sits empty in the office. (PCN photo)
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.
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.
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.
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?
The writer signs this huge poster inside the Senator’s office for supporter’s to sign. ( Staff Photo)