Not Even Prison Walls Can Silence Duterte’s Nemesis


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Amid a crackdown on independent media, the defiant Philippine Senator Leila de Lima enters her third year as a political prisoner.

By Walden Bello

FEBRUARY 27, 2019
Philippines Senator Leila de Lima
A policewoman guards Philippine Senator Leila de Lima as she raises a sign that means “Laban” (Fight), after appearing at court on drug related charges in Muntinlupa, Metro Manila, Philippines, on February 24, 2017. (Reuters / Erik De Castro)

Manila, The Philippines

On February 13, the Philippines National Bureau of Investigation bungled the serving of an arrest warrant to Maria Ressa, the founder of the scrappy news site Rappler. Plainclothes officers delivered it to her so late that she couldn’t post bail before the 9 pmdeadline, forcing her to spend the night in detention. Live-streamed by Rappler reporters, the arrest for cyberlibel stemmed from a seven-year-old story and ignited a local and international firestorm. Former US secretary of state Madeline Albright and CNN talk-show host Christiane Amanpour condemned the jailing of Ressa as an attack on the freedom of the press.

The outpouring of anger suggests, as Ressa herself has pointed out, that President Rodrigo Duterte may have finally “crossed the line,” and that this may be the start of pushback against the president’s dictatorial ambitions. Ressa spent only one night in jail, but the support she received is a warning to the administration that silencing Rappler won’t come without a cost.

Ressa is not the first Duterte foe detained in the Philippines. The president’s foremost nemesis, Senator Leila de Lima, is entering her third year in prison on dubious drug-trafficking charges. De Lima’s indefinite detention is a reminder of the lengths to which Duterte is willing to twist the law to muzzle anyone who opposes him. The legal attacks against de Lima became one blueprint for Duterte’s repression; he used it against Ressa, and he will almost certainly use it again. But de Lima’s continued defense of human rights—even from behind prison walls—provides a model for others who hope to turn the tide against the current regime.


Duterte’s vendetta against de Lima began a decade ago. As chair of the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) during the administration of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo (2001–10), de Lima investigated institutions and people regarded as untouchable. In 2009, she summoned Duterte, who was then mayor of Davao City in the southern Philippines, to publicly respond to charges that he maintained a vigilante group that had murdered hundreds of people, including street children and those accused of petty crime. The hit men were not much of a secret. At the time, the killers would leave notes on bullet-riddled corpses: “Addict. Don’t be like me,” and the warning would be signed: “Davao Death Squad.”

Making Duterte answer to allegations of mass murder was a bold move. But Duterte painted de Lima as an emissary of “imperial Manila” meddling in local affairs, and her probe evoked hostility from Davao City officials and many local citizens. With hardly anyone willing to stand up to him, Duterte must’ve felt safe when he ordered a hit on de Lima as she visited a quarry where the remains of death-squad victims were said to be disposed, according to the testimony of one of the would-be assassins. De Lima escaped death, the gunman said, only because she happened to avoid the spot where they’d planned to ambush her.

With Davao residents largely unwilling to participate in the investigation, the CHR couldn’t finish its report on the Davao Death Squad. The next year, President Benigno Aquino tapped de Lima to be his secretary of justice, and she shifted her focus to combating corruption. But Duterte is not one to forgive or forget. In 2017, she wrote to me from prison that Duterte had a CD of a recording “where I said that I would prove that there is a DDS [Davao Death Squad] and he’s behind it. When he became president, he said in a public event that he would make me eat the CD.” And yet during his campaign for president, Duterte admitted that the death squad existed and that he had links to it.


When Duterte was elected president and de Lima senator in May 2016, it was inevitable that his authoritarianism and vengeful streak would clash with de Lima’s dedication to human rights. In September of that year, de Lima convened a series of hearings on extrajudicial killings, the initial focus of which was exposing the Davao Death Squad. Since Duterte came to power, deaths were mounting from the War on Drugs, but the instrument was no longer a shadowy vigilante force but the National Police. By the time of the hearings, as many as 1,500 suspected drug users had already been gunned down, according to the police chief’s own admission. Currently, estimates of those killed either by police or vigilante groups range from 5,000 to over 20,000.

Duterte saw the investigation as a threat, especially since a hit man who claimed Duterte himself ordered the killings was one of the star witnesses. In response, Duterte unleashed a massive smear campaign to discredit de Lima and, according to de Lima’s counsel, ordered his secretary of justice to concoct drug-trafficking charges. Sensing an opportunity to ingratiate himself with Duterte, an ambitious congressman, Harry Roque, sought to disgrace de Lima’s character by turning a congressional probe into a salacious inquiry into de Lima’s relationship with her former driver. Later, Duterte made Roque his spokesman—despite the fact that Roque had once denounced Duterte as a “self-professed murderer.”

With Duterte at the peak of his popularity, other members of the opposition only tepidly defended her. “No one really came to my rescue,” De Lima wrote me in 2017.

The charges against de Lima were so obviously a frame-up that four regional trial-court judges inhibited themselves from hearing them, likely not wanting to sully their reputations by declaring her guilty.

Perhaps worried that giving de Lima her day in court would allow her to publicly attack Duterte, the administration decided to indefinitely detain her. It seems Duterte tried to give her a choice: Fade away from the public consciousness in jail, or admit guilt and submit to the president.

All it would likely take for de Lima to secure her release is an act of contrition and a vow never to stand in the president’s way again. But she brushed aside that option in a letter to me, “By pleading to an offense—any offense—that I did not commit in exchange for some promise, I would be selling my mandate, not serving it. It would be tantamount to admitting that I am being charged, detained, and oppressed for reasons other than the simple and incontrovertible fact that I dared stand up to the president in order to defend the human rights of our people.”


De Lima, however, did fear disappearing, Count of Monte Cristo–like, from the public’s memory, and so she and her Senate staff set out to make sure her voice could still be heard. About three times a week, she sends out a “Dispatch from Crame”—the prison where she’s being held—to prove that she can still perform her role as senator. Through this correspondence, de Lima sponsors legislation and communicates her views on various issues. Her jailers haven’t made this easy. She has no cell phone, computer, access to the Internet, or even air conditioning. Her requests for personal and legislative furloughs were all denied. No foreign visitors, including parliamentarians, have been allowed to see her.

But local news outlets like Rappler and international media and human-rights organizations like the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights have helped keep her in the public eye.

It is clear now that de Lima was a test case for how Duterte would deal with his enemies. The next prominent victim was Supreme Court Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno. Concerned that impeachment followed by a trial in the Senate could make Sereno a martyr, Duterte’s minions came up with a legal maneuver that shocked the judicial establishment: Duterte’s solicitor general, Jose Calida, declared the chief justice’s appointment by President Aquino six years earlier void ab initio, because she failed to file the proper asset-disclosure paperwork when she was a professor at the University of the Philippines.

Perhaps overconfident from its humiliation of Sereno, the administration decided to move against Rappler, which had been in its crosshairs for its fearless coverage of the War on Drugs and Duterte’s ceaseless drive for power. The Duterte administration charged Rappler with tax evasion, cyberlibel, and violating the foreign-ownership-of-media provision of the constitution.

For once, Duterte’s attacks have backfired. Unlike de Lima, who was systematically vilified before her arrest, Ressa enjoys widespread support among most of the media, who see her as one of their own. On February 23, opposition groups rallied to condemn the move toward dictatorship. Despite the backlash, Duterte appears determined to jail Ressa, close down Rappler, and, more broadly, seize dictatorial powers.


De Lima says she is heartened by the rage provoked by the Rappler arrest, but she also knows Duterte remains popular despite it. She once observed that the people in Davao did not cooperate in her investigation of the Davao Death Squad owing to their being “under the spell of Duterte.” With Duterte as president, she thinks something similar has happened. She wrote to me: “People feel invested in the person they supported, and they do not want to believe that he is capable of destroying an innocent human being for personal vengeance and political power, because if they admit that, they believe that they also have to admit that they made the wrong choice.… People are perhaps not yet prepared to face certain truths.”

But de Lima is cautiously confident that “the time will come when they will be forced to acknowledge the truth”—although, she added, “it might take more lives to be sacrificed before that happens.”

Duterte may succeed in shutting down Rappler, as he succeeded in jailing de Lima, but with each assault on democracy, his image as a no-nonsense reformer becomes harder to sustain. Stopping Duterte won’t be easy, but more and more people, especially among the young, are drawing inspiration from Leila de Lima’s stubborn refusal to surrender.

Office of Senator Leila de Lima
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Trunk Lines:
(632) 552-6601 to 70 local no. 5750

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