Interview with Leila de Lima, political prisoner

On August 21, her 181st day of incarceration and a week short of her birthday, Senator Leila de Lima gave me a wide ranging interview, perhaps the most extensive she has ever given.  The last time I saw her was in totally different circumstances, when we faced off as opposing candidates for the Senate at a debate sponsored by Rappler in April 2016.  I never imagined that at our next meeting she would be a tightly guarded political prisoner at Camp Crame.

Do you think Duterte will ever give up power?

I do question his psychology and state of mind.  You can’t tell what he will do.  He’s been charged with crimes against humanity before the International Criminal Court.  So it’s hard to see that he will easily relinquish power.  I think he is just waiting for the right opening to declare martial law over the whole country. The appointment instead of election of barangay officials must be seen in this light.  It could be a step towards martial law or authoritarianism. I don’t know whether to underestimate or overestimate his capacity.  It’s very fluid.

What accounts for Duterte’s rise?

Duterte’s rise must be seen in the context of the rise of populism globally.  Duterte’s rise was a reaction against decades of neglect and mounting frustrations.  People were fed up with the leaders who were educated and came from the elite.  It’s time to try a different animal, they thought, even if he is a scoundrel.  He struck the right chords, despite his bravado.  He speaks a language people understand.  He sold himself as anti-corruption, and he branded all those opposed to him as enemies of the state.  He definitely managed a good sell of his persona.  But with what is now happening, it’s time for people to rethink.

How would you assess your record at the Department of Justice?

I was a political neophyte.  I had been an election law practitioner, before I was appointed to be chairperson of the Commission on Human Rights. But I just served two years out of the seven year-term since I was appointed by PNoy to be Secretary of Justice.  I was full of idealism and desire to change things in any way I could.  But I knew the problems were overwhelming and that PNoy had to focus on the economy.  I was tasked to give order to the administration of justice, and as in other areas of public service, there was inefficiency and corruption there.  In my own little way as Secretary of Justice, I pushed a number of reforms like revitalizing the network of prosecutors and taking on a number of high profile cases, like the PDAF scam, the Luneta hostage taking, the Atimonan massacre.  And I had to go after corrupt prosecutors. The challenge was quite overwhelming. We had areas of successes and areas of failure.  The important thing was to make sure democracy was working.  One thing I can say is that persecution was not in my agenda, and we never persecuted anyone using the machinery of the executive branch. I don’t think we were remiss in addressing the drug problem, as Duterte’s people claim.  We prosecuted people, but we followed the law.  We did not engage in extra-judicial killing of suspects.

What ae your views on the drug problem?

The basic problem is poverty and inequality.  That has to be addressed.  The president has exaggerated the danger because he was a single-issue candidate, and it worked with voters.  His statement that there are 3 or 4 million users is inaccurate.  The Dangerous Drugs Board head said there are only 1.8 million, and this cost him his job because the president had to persist in his narrative that we are a narco-state.  It’s propaganda.

Why has Duterte focused on you?

It’s a personal vendetta.  He can’t stand my having dared to investigate him in 2009, when I was CHR chair.  We had open public hearings on the Davao Death Squad, and we summoned him.  He appeared.  I told him straight that we were told that he had encouraged the unsolved killings.  He has not forgotten nor forgiven me.  He got a tape about an interview in Davao where I said that I would prove that there is DDS and he’s behind it. When he became President, he said in a public event that he would make me eat the CD.

Second, because I am a woman.  He can’t imagine that a woman would dare defy him, much less openly oppose him.  His own men and contemporaries in San Beda confirm he can’t stand being contradicted.  So what more if a woman opposes him.

He told Congress not to interfere with his war on drugs.  On July 13, 2016, when I called for an inquiry, the old wounds resurfaced, and what really angered him was when we presented Edgar Matobato as a witness.

I am also an easy target.  I don’t belong to any dynasty, have no influential friends, and don’t have any political clout.  I made enemies during my stint at the DOJ as SOJ, among them GMA, some senators, and people who belonged to powerful blocs.  So no one really came to my defense or my rescue.

Aren’t there people that the president listens to?

There are decent people in the Cabinet, like ES Medialdea, and Secretaries Tugade, Evasco, Dureza and Briones, who are in a position to ask the president to stop the killings.  But will they do it?  These Cabinet members can see the growing outrage, especially over the killing of the student.  It’s very clear what’s right and wrong.  But they’re scared of the president because he does not like to be contradicted.  To me, it’s no surprise that they are fearful of the president.  At the same time, they don’t want to take the option of resigning.

The constitutional provision is available that if a president is physically or mentally incapacitated, the Cabinet can declare him unfit to discharge his duties.  They can have recourse to that.  I don’t see anyone in the cabinet who would even raise the subject.  But if they persist in their silence, they are complicit in what is happening.

Is the PNP hopeless?

It’s not really hopeless.  But rebuilding the institution will take years since the current crop of police officers have been converted into cold blooded killers and they’ll be there for two more decades.  Reforming the PNP will take more than the usual reforms.  A few more years of this would take a toll on the institution.  The next president will have his hands full attending to this institution.

What about the military?

To be honest about it, the only remaining institution that is more or less faithful to its constitutional mission is the military.  Congress supported the martial law extension and the Supreme Court supported the Marcos burial and provided the legal justification for martial law.  I am still trying to pin my hopes though in the Supreme Court, even if 10 or 11 are or will be the president’s own appointees if he serves his term.  Congress is very disappointing.  It has served as a rubberstamp and lost the opportunity to manifest its ideal role as an independent branch of government.  But the military is hanging on, so far.  As an institution it refuses to be used in the war on drugs.  The president knows his hold on the military is less strong than on the other institutions.

What about the Senate?

The president could not stand me and wanted me out.  The majority could not afford to go against the wishes of the president because he has the capacity to make their lives difficult.  He has dossiers on each of them and he can use these to harass them.  They were scared of the president, but they would not admit that or admit that ousting me was what the president wanted.

Some of them are sincere, and as things become more and more unacceptable, some of the others may seize the opportunity to take advantage of the outrage as the tide turns.  I have an idea of who are the sincere ones and who are plain opportunists.

With the police having become the personal instrument of the president, do you feel safe being incarcerated at the PNP custodial center?  With the president now able to get away with almost anything, don’t you feel you can be an object of EJK and the PNP custodial center would be the ideal site for such an action?  What is your estimate of getting out of here alive?

I still believe – and, of course, pray – that I would someday regain my freedom and vindication in this lifetime.  Perhaps it is naïve of me to say it, but I admit that there is a part of me – perhaps the same part that keeps me going in spite of everything – that believes that my innocence and the importance of my advocacy somehow protects me.  I am aware, of course, that this might be more a matter of faith and wishful thinking on my part.  I am all that more vulnerable because I am completely and utterly at the mercy of my captors.  And that is what I am – a captive in my own country, at the mercy of my oppressors.  While my immediate jailers – the police officers here at the Custodial Center – tend to be professional and respectful, I cannot for a moment forget that the person at the very top of the food chain, who himself admits that he has no qualms about killing people, sees me as an arch enemy and has falsely charged me with illegal drug trading, which in the streets today is basically a death warrant for people who are not in this administration’s good graces.  He has even expressly stated that he wants me to hang myself. I cannot help but fear that he could have me killed anytime. 

In other words, while I still want to believe that my innocence must afford me some protection and chances of deliverance from evil designs, I cannot forget how vulnerable I am.  I live and die at the whim of a sociopath.

I know that the legalities are on your side, but since this is a political case, how confident are you that you will be able to get out of custody while Duterte remains chief of state?

While I still have faith in the independence of the judiciary – which might not be for long if the president and his allies succeed in ousting the Chief Justice, which will not only leave open that critical post, but will also necessarily have a chilling effect on everyone else as it serves as a warning against those who would dare stand up to him and his despotic rule – I am not very confident of regaining my freedom while the President remains as powerful as he is today.  I have to manage my expectations, you see.  And I expect that, even if the merits of my case are strong, probably the best I can hope for is to survive the waiting game.   So I remain hopeful because the law and the truth is on my side, but I cannot lose sight of the current political reality we are all living in right now.

If you were offered the choice of pleading guilty to lesser charges in exchange for freedom and assuming your Senate duties, would you take the offer?  Or is your position dismissal of all charges or nothing at all, in which case you are prepared to be detained indefinitely?

The question is would I sacrifice my integrity by pleading guilty to an offense I did not commit, in order to have the chance to assume my Senate duties and serve the people who elected me into office? On the surface, it seems to ask whether I would sacrifice my personal interest in order to serve the greater good.  I will not be serving the greater good by becoming complicit in obscuring the truth and playing into their narrative.  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 – their right to life, liberty, and security – especially the poor and the vulnerable, who are dying in the streets while the real culprits, the big-time and even self-confessed drug lords are going scot-free.  Only the truth will set me and our people free. 

As someone who has followed your career closely and worked with you on some issues while I was in Congress, I find it inconceivable that people would believe what Duterte’s people are saying about you.  Why do you think there are so many people who are willing to swallow Malacanang’s story, no matter how outrageously false it is?

I think there are people who believe because they want to believe.  They want to believe because they don’t want to face the reality of who they elected as President.  That is the misconception we have about democracy.  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.  I think people aren’t yet prepared for that dose of reality.  That is the only explanation I could come up with why ordinary people would believe the lies being peddled by the Duterte administration against me, even in the face of the facts, my track record in public service, the utter lack of evidence and even coherence in the cases filed against me, and the circumstances that placed me in the crosshairs of the president and eventually led me here.

I also believe that we have to do something about the erosion of the integrity of the information that our people are exposed to.  Fake news, online and offline troll armies and propaganda machineries that peddle so-called “alternative facts”.  If there is such a thing as “alternative fact”, we already have a word for it: lies.  People are being exposed to lies.  On some level, they are being duped.  But on another level, they must know that they are being lied to, but they are probably too weary to sort it out anymore.  They have become so tired of, and, thus, desensitized to, separating the lies from the truth. There is truth in the saying that the truth hurts.  People are perhaps not yet prepared to face certain truths.  The time will come when they will be forced to.  Unfortunately, it might take more lives to be sacrificed before that happens.  Hopefully, when they are ready to be awakened, it would not be too late for all of us.  On the other hand, I think that there are people who do not really believe that I am guilty of the charges filed against me.  These are people who, like you, have worked with me, or have seen me perform my duties, first, as an election lawyer, next as a public servant in the CHR and, thereafter, in the DOJ.  But they will not stand up to the President and say that to his face.  They will not come out to speak in my favor – even if their conscience tells them that I am a victim of political persecution – precisely because of my track record and the fact that I truly am a victim of political persecution.  Duterte has been very successful, thus far, in undermining the independence of offices and officials precisely because they have seen what he can do to an innocent woman.   

You said there have been so few of your colleagues and other personalities willing to stand up for you.  Where is this coming from?  Is it fear of what the president can do to them?


I think the same thing that I have said above applies to my colleagues and other personalities.  Some are in denial – they don’t want to face the reality that they have bent the knee, so-to-speak, to an unscrupulous, sociopathic, vengeful, remorseless despot.   Others, I believe, know the truth, but they dare not speak it because they dare not draw attention to themselves, or sacrifice what security – or what little thereof – they feel in the current political climate.  After all, if the President can do this to me – someone who is totally innocent – what can he do to others?

Finally, we have to see my current circumstances in light of everything I have done in my career as a public servant.  Let’s face it, I have made powerful enemies, many of whom are still in power and have formed an alliance with the President, because of my commitment to delivering justice without fear or favor.  Ironically, and yet logically, it is my track record as CHR Chairperson and DOJ Secretary that has made me a target for vengeance.  So there are those who would never speak up for me because they are probably thanking Duterte for giving me what they probably see as my comeuppance.  It is perhaps a blessing that I am not a traditional politician.  That I am used to standing up on my own.  That I do not have to rely on others to find the courage to do and stand up for what is right.  The tide will turn, with or without the support of my colleagues, and when it does, they will have to face the consequences of the choices they have made, even the choice to ignore the truth and allow innocent people to be victimized.

[This interview first appeared in rappler, September 5 & 6, 2017:;]