MANILA (SE): Leila de Lima, a long-time arch critic of the president of The Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, was arrested on February 24 on charges of receiving drug money and protecting drug offenders in order to finance her campaign for the senate last year.
De Lima, the justice secretary under the previous administration of Noynoy Aquino and current member of the upper house of the congress, has been in Duterte’s sights since July 13 last year when she filed a resolution seeking a congressional investigation into the mass murder by the state.
She stated at the time, “The fight against crime is apparently becoming a looming state-sanctioned cover for a policy of summary executions and extrajudicial killings.”
With Duterte’s foot less than two weeks inside the door of Malacañang, his spokesperson issued a press release saying that a generation of Filipinos is being saved from the drug scourge, but when de Lima opened the investigation on August 22, Duterte loaded his guns.
He began with a sex scandal, accusing the senator of having an affair with her driver. An accusation that has never been substantiated.
De Lima was also one of the first to support an injunction put forward by Risa Hontiveros in the senate against the burial of the martial law president, Ferdinand Marcos, in the Heroes Cemetery.
Duterte then played his ace, issuing an accusation against her of receiving drug rake off money and using her position as justice secretary to protect drug lords.
Prisoners interviewed in the congressional inquiry also testified that she was connected with the drug trade.
De Lima has consistently denied the allegations and on October 10 last year, she said at a ceremony to mark World Day Against the Death Penalty in the bishops’ conference chapel in Intramuros, “I prepared myself already for the worst. I already said goodbye to my family.”
She told those present that she would wear black from that day onwards.
De Lima has had Duterte in her sights for many years. In 2012, while she was secretary for justice, she organised the Commission on Human Rights to travel to Mindanao and hold a public hearing on the death squads he was running as mayor of the city.
The commission conducted an exhaustive investigation. Witnesses were met in secret and families of victims, as well as former hitmen were interviewed.
The commission recommended that certain people be prosecuted, but even those who had been prepared to sign testimonies for the commission could not be persuaded to give evidence in court for fear the only peace they would ever find would be in the cemetery.
A report from Human Rights Watch in 2009 stated that the assassins in Duterte’s long-running death squads had good connections with the police, who would clear the area of officers when someone was about to be executed.
The human rights watchdog’s report entitled, You Can Die Anytime: Death squad killings in Mindanao, states, “Official tolerance and support of targeted killing of suspected criminals promotes rather than curbs the culture of violence that has long plagued Davao City and other places where such killings have occurred.”
De Lima knows details about these only too well, as she had access to the findings of the 2012 hearings that were never able to see the light of day.
A report released from the PREDA Foundation in Olongapo City reveals that between 1988 and 2015 a total of 1,424 people fell victim to the infamous Davao Death Squads, 57 of whom were women and 132 under the age of 17. The youngest was a 12-year-old.
De Lima knows this and she also knows that despite Duterte’s claims, Davao City ranks number one for murder in the country and number two for rape.
It is a city far from the president’s claim of being crime free.
But if de Lima is found guilty of the spurious charges the president is bringing against her, she could be behind bars for the rest of her life or, if the death penalty bill currently before the congress is passed, find herself in the execution chamber.
On February 21, as the probability of her arrest loomed, de Lima described Duterte as a psychopathic serial killer.
She initially avoided the police by seeking sanctuary in her congressional office, but the unarmed senator gave herself up to armed officers on the morning of the following day.
She said on her arrest, “They will not be able to silence me and stop me from fighting for truth and justice and against the daily killings and repression of the Duterte regime.”
She stressed, “As I have been saying all along, I am innocent. There is no truth to the charges I benefitted from the drug trade, that I have received money and that I coddled drug convicts.”
Her last words while standing outside her office in the congress before the police took her away were, “It is my honour to be imprisoned for the things I am fighting for. Please pray for me.”
The speaker of the lower house in the congress, Pantaleon Alvarez, described her arrest as a victory for the war against drugs that shows that justice is working under the trial-by-fire legal system.
But Edre Olalia, from the National Union of People’s Lawyers, warned that de Lima’s arrest must not obscure the faceless many that continue to languish in prisons on trumped up charges.
“When things have calmed down and it is business as usual for political accommodations, and self-righteous posturing has died down, the fundamental problems of our society and the need for genuine reforms, including consistently upholding the rule of justice without fear or favour, remain,” Olalia concluded.
However, the circus continues, as it is believed that Duterte’s unwanted and inconvenient vice president, Leni Rebredo, may well be the next to be forced to surrender to the political tactics of the psychopathic serial killer, who manipulates his country people through the rule of fear.
Duterte’s unpredictability in unleashing his attacks on his political enemies helps to keep them on their toes and mostly with their mouths tightly shut.