Manila, Philippines – When Senator Leila de Lima initiated a Senate investigation into the extrajudicial killings of suspected drug offenders in the Philippines, she did not expect that she would end up charged with drug trafficking and arrested.
Nearly three years later, she remains in detention.
“I don’t deserve to be here. Those drug charges are bulls**t,” de Lima, dressed in a blue-and-beige striped top, jeans and black sandals, told Al Jazeera.
Sitting in a spartan receiving area in police headquarters in Manila where she is being imprisoned, de Lima said her arrest was meant to punish her for questioning a state-sanctioned crackdown on illegal drugs that has left thousands dead.
Foreign governments and international human rights organisations have condemned the killings and de Lima’s arrest.
Earlier this month, the United States went one step further by passing a resolution calling for Philippine government officials responsible for extrajudicial killings and de Lima’s prolonged detention to be blacklisted, banning their entry into the US and freezing their US assets.
The resolution invoked the 2016 Global Magnitsky Act which authorises the US government to sanction foreign government officials of any country implicated in human rights violations.
US Senator Edward Markey authored the resolution which also condemned the harassment of independent media, particularly journalist Maria Ressa who has been arrested several times and is currently out on bail. Her news site, Rappler, has reported extensively on the drug war and been critical of President Rodrigo Duterte.
Leila de Lima was arrested in February 2017 and accused of being involved in the illicit drugs trade. She had earlier initiated a Senate investigation into President Rodrigo Duterte’s brutal crackdown on drugs [Rolex dela Pena/EPA]
Earlier, an amendment in the 2020 US state and foreign operations appropriations bill included a provision denying entry to those involved in De Lima’s arrest.
In a statement, Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo called the US moves a “form of bullying”.
“We will not be bullied by any foreign country or by its officials, especially by misinformed and gullible politicians who grandstand at our expense,” Panelo said.
The Philippine government has responded by levying its own sanctions, barring the three US Senators including Markey following their push for the Global Magnitsky Act.
Failed Drug War
Since President Rodrigo Duterte assumed office in 2016, a brutal crackdown on illegal narcotics has seen thousands of mostly poor young men accused of being drug offenders killed in a mix of police operations and vigilante killings.
Vice President Leni Robredo, who is elected separately and comes from an opposition party, has called the drug war a failure.
Robredo co-chaired the Inter-Agency Committee on Anti-Illegal Drugs (ICAD) for 19 days in November before she was sacked by Duterte.
Citing police data, Robredo said during her brief stint in office she had discovered that the seized methamphetamines and drug money did not even reach 1 percent of the total drugs consumed and their street value.
“That’s 1 percent. If this were an exam, the score of the government would be one over 100,” said Robredo, speaking to the media on January 6.
It was this drug war that de Lima wanted to investigate in the early months of Duterte’s presidency in a probe that angered Duterte and many people who supported the president and the drug war.
Duterte, known for being intolerant of dissent, reserved a special kind of public shaming for de Lima.
“I will destroy her,” Duterte promised in 2016.
President Rodrigo Duterte began his ‘war on drugs’ shortly after coming to office [File: EPA]
The president detailed one of her past romances in lurid detail and alleged that de Lima’s former lover conspired with her.
His allies opened a congressional inquiry into de Lima’s drug charges and loaded the cross-examination with sexual innuendo that played on de Lima’s purported immorality.
Opposition senator Risa Hontiveros described the character assassination of de Lima “as a state-sponsored assault on women.”
“But maligning de Lima not as a lawmaker or public official but as a woman, the president and his cohorts revealed themselves as the faces of misogyny at its worst and ugliest,” said Hontiveros.
“I know he hates me, but I never thought he would have me jailed. He made an example out of me,” de Lima said.
Her years in detention have made her more reflective, but no less defiant.
“They needed to demonise me to make the public believe the drug charges. Underneath the bravado, he is a coward. He knows I’m not afraid of him.”
Minister of Justice Menardo Guevarra told Al Jazeera that de Lima’s detention was “neither wrongful nor unlawful” and that the detention had been affirmed by the Supreme Court.
“She may still file a petition for bail if she truly believes that the evidence of the prosecution is weak or fabricated,” he said. “She has never attempted to do so. Instead, she relies on foreign groups, including US senators, to cry for her freedom. This is utter disrespect for our country’s legal and judicial processes.”
Analysts doubt the Magnitsky Act will have much effect on her case.
“It is just a tit-for-tat war of words,” said political analyst Ramon Casiple. “I don’t imagine the Philippine government bending or changing its policies because it does not believe the accusations that they are violating human rights.
“It only authorises the Secretary of Senate (to enact a ban) but it does not oblige him to do it within a prescribed timeframe. I don’t see it prospering. President Trump and President Duterte are friends.”
Leila de Lima’s supporters took to the streets after she was arrested in 2017 [File: Aaron Favila/AP Photo]
Fhillip Sawali, de Lima’s chief of staff disagrees.
“It would be very difficult for President Trump to brush aside the emerging global coalition around the Global Magnitsky Act. Countries are coming together to hold human rights violators accountable.”
Taking to Twitter, de Lima said she had made a list of perpetrators responsible for her detention, likening herself to Arya Stark, the Game of Thrones character who every night recites a litany of people from whom she will someday exact justice.
De Lima stressed that she does not wish her detractors to meet a tragic fate like the characters in the hit mini-series, one of the pre-approved shows she is allowed to watch a couple of times each month. She is also allowed books but is kept separate from other detainees at the facility.
The Global Magnitsky Act was a “tool of divine justice”, she said but has a tempered view of how it will affect her case. She hopes it will hasten the verdict on her drug-trafficking charges but acknowledges the judges handling her case are caught in a bind.
“If they convict me, it will be a violation of their conscience. If they acquit me, it will be career suicide for them under this administration. They may just decide to convict me so I can appeal the decision,” said de Lima.
An appeal would take years and would mean more time in detention.
“I hope not. I’m not getting any younger. I’m already 60,” she said with short brittle laugh that quickly turned into a sigh.
“I’m raring to get out of here. I miss my old life and all the things I used to do – driving my car, cooking, walking around my neighbourhood, being with my family.”
A sliver of justice might be looming on the horizon. Freedom is another matter altogether.