MANILA, Philippines (AP) — With her hand raised high to greet the crowd, Philippine Sen. Leila de Lima appeared on stage campaigning for re-election in upcoming polls. Only it wasn’t the opposition icon herself, but rather a life-size cutout image displayed by her allies on the campaign trail.
The 62-year-old top critic of outgoing President Rodrigo Duterte has been locked up for more than five years in a high-security jail in the main police camp in the capital. She is the most famous prisoner under Duterte’s turbulent six-year rule.
Isolated from the outside world by high prison walls, iron bars, rusty barbed wire and armed guards, de Lima has accused Duterte and his deputies of fabricating the non-bailable drug-linked charges that landed her in jail in February 2017 and effectively stopped her from investigating the widespread killings of mostly poor suspects under his anti-drug crackdown. Duterte has insisted on her guilt, saying witnesses testified that she received payoffs from imprisoned drug lords.
“I cried every day especially at night in the first few weeks, not really out of self-pity but for my family and out of disbelief,” de Lima told The Associated Press on Tuesday, in her first court-authorized jail interview since her arrest. “I was isolated. There was no one else but stray cats.”
During her imprisonment, she has only won court permission five times to leave detention briefly and under heavy guard for medical checkups, to attend a party for her son after he passed the bar exam and to console her ailing 89-year-old mother.
The prison wall and desolation, however, have failed to silence her, she said.
“I’m a fighter,” said the bespectacled former human rights commission chief and justice secretary, who welcomed an AP journalist, her lawyer and staff with a smile and a fist bump in jail as two police officers kept watch.
“It’s tough, but I can manage,” she said. “I can never lose hope.”
An internet connection, TV and radio sets, personal computers and cellphones are prohibited in her tiny cell, but she has kept abreast of domestic and international developments through the two newspapers delivered to her each morning, from radio news blaring out from somewhere in the jail compound and from news clippings brought by her Senate staff.
This has allowed her to issue more than 1,200 handwritten daily statements from detention so far, mostly her critical thoughts on Duterte’s governance and reaction to breaking news like the 2020 electoral triumph of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, which she welcomed as a victory of democracy over “fabricated populism,” and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which she called “an act of madness” that has put the world on edge.
She has filed more than 600 proposed Senate bills and resolutions from jail, many aimed at strengthening human rights and government accountability and easing poverty. One bill that was signed into law in 2019 calls for the regular funding of a program providing cash aid to the poor who enlist their children in health and educational campaigns.
Running for re-election in the May 9 polls under the main opposition bloc led by presidential candidate Leni Robredo, the incumbent vice president, de Lima sought a trial court’s permission to participate in online campaigning and debates and to allow journalists to interview her. But government prosecutors opposed the requests, saying she’s facing capital charges and that granting them would “virtually make her a free man and promote her to a distinctive rank.” The court allowed her to grant media interviews in detention but without cameras and to regularly meet with her campaign team in jail.
Locked away from the campaign trail, de Lima sent her cut-out images to appear in her place.
“I’m sad because I should be out there interacting with the voters,” she said, adding that whenever her name is called at campaign rallies and people see her “standee” being carried to center stage, it receives a “warm response from audiences.”
De Lima expressed relief that Duterte’s crisis-ridden term is drawing to a close but said she was “very, very concerned” that the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos’s son and namesake, who is seeking the presidency, has led pre-election surveys by a huge margin.
She expressed fears that a Marcos presidency may undermine the rule of law and allow the family to block efforts to recover their suspected ill-gotten wealth and fully compensate the thousands of human rights victims under his father’s dictatorship. There’s also the danger of “historical revisionism,” she said.
“Sometimes, you can’t even think how is it that we’re going back to this direction,” de Lima said.
A former law professor, de Lima led the national Commission on Human Rights starting in 2008 and later served as justice secretary before winning a Senate seat in 2016 in her first attempt in a national election. But she has not been faring strongly in recent pre-election surveys and blames the brash-speaking Duterte, who she says “demonized” her and subjected her to misogynistic attacks that she could hardly address from jail.
After de Lima surrendered and was detained in February 2017, Duterte gave a speech before the Filipino community in Thailand where he described de Lima as a sinner with “a very thick face.” The 76-year-old president said he’ll likely end up “in hell” first but when de Lima follows, “I will tell Mr. Satan: ‘The queen you’ve been waiting for is here.’”
“While some did not believe him, some others did believe the character assassination and demonization,” she said, adding that she and her team try to fight such disinformation in the campaign.
Duterte and de Lima have long been on a collision course over human rights.
As a human rights commission chief in 2009, she led an investigation into the widespread killings of drug suspects under then-mayor Duterte in southern Davao city. But she failed to find any witnesses who would testify publicly against the local leader, who was dubbed Duterte Harry after the Hollywood police character with little regard for the law. In 2016, Duterte rose to the presidency and de Lima was elected to the Senate and pursued an investigation into his campaign against illegal drugs but authorities moved to put her under arrest.
According to official police records, more than 6,000 mostly poor suspects have been killed under Duterte’s crackdown, but human rights groups say the death toll is considerably higher. The International Criminal Court has begun an investigation into the killings in what an ICC prosecutor said could be a case of crimes against humanity.
De Lima’s years-long detention has sparked calls from the European Union Parliament, some U.S. legislators and U.N. human rights experts and international watchdogs for de Lima’s immediate release.
Duterte has responded with angry outbursts and threats, saying Westerners were bullying and meddling in his country’s domestic affairs.
Asked if she feels that she could win back her liberty once Duterte steps down, de Lima said that if the next administration would be beyond his lingering influence, “I have a pretty good chance of achieving justice.”
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