Leila de Lima after six years in prison

Former senator, human rights chair, and justice secretary Leila de Lima marks her sixth year in detention on Feb. 24, the same week the Filipino people threw off the yoke of political tyranny 37 years ago. Her trial, on charges of alleged involvement in the illegal drug trade run from prison by convicted drug lords, has moved at a snail’s pace. She spent the last five years of her six-year term as senator in prison, denied the right to participate in Senate proceedings in person or by electronic means.

None of the petitions and motions seeking her provisional release have succeeded. Yet despite the obvious political motivation behind the fabricated charges against her, and despite the blatant weaponization of the legal system that has kept her in jail, she continues to believe that, ultimately, a few good people within the system will be able to summon enough will to push back and refuse to cooperate in this continuing charade of injustice. The recusal and/or early retirement of several judges assigned to the case, and the recantation of the testimonies of major witnesses, are already proving this.

“I’m a lawyer by training, by temperament, and by conviction,” the former senator told me when I visited her at the PNP Custodial Center in Quezon City the other day. It’s her way of explaining why she’s determined to continue to seek justice under the country’s legal system, despite its persistent abuse by people of power, influence, and money.

Indeed, she could have just opted to leave and seek asylum in another country as a victim of political persecution. She was aware that Rodrigo Duterte had long targeted her for destruction, almost as if it was his main reason for seeking the presidency.

He first tarred her as an immoral woman by accusing her of keeping her married driver, Ronnie Dayan, as her lover. Deploying all the vulgarity he could command, he announced that he had in his possession a sex video purportedly showing the lady senator and Dayan in delicate poses. (There was no such video.) He then accused her of being corrupt, specifically of protecting convicted drug lords when she was justice secretary, and allegedly receiving money from them for her senatorial campaign, using her “driver-lover” as conduit.

Picking up from the Duterte tirade against then Senator De Lima, his obsequious allies in Congress wasted no time calling for urgent hearings “in aid of legislation.” Driven largely by sexual innuendos, the hearings at the House of Representatives sought to complete the degradation of Leila de Lima. One would be hard-pressed to think of a more reprehensible moment in the history of congressional hearings than the public slut-shaming of the senator.While her colleagues at the Senate did not descend to the level of their House counterparts, they were no less anxious to signal their support for the new president. By a majority vote, they maneuvered to strip their beleaguered colleague of the chairmanship of the committee on justice and human rights, thus effectively terminating her investigation of extrajudicial killings committed in the course of the deadly war on drugs both when Duterte was Davao mayor and soon after he became president.

In October 2017, the Supreme Court, voting 9-6, denied De Lima’s petition to nullify the arrest order issued against her by the Muntinlupa Regional Trial Court on the ground that the charges were vague. But, in April the following year, the Court affirmed its decision. Democracy, indeed, dies by a thousand cuts.

The wonder of it all is that, while she has mellowed, De Lima, after six years in prison, remains unbowed, unbroken, and undiminished. “The first three or four months were difficult,” she said. “I was torn away from my family, friends, and community. But I had work to do as an elected senator. At no point did I allow myself to sink into depression.”

Kept in virtual isolation in her scarcely furnished detention room, she quickly settled into a routine. Waking up early, she reads the Bible, prays, meditates, and searches for her inner peace. Then she exercises to keep physically fit, cleans her room, eats breakfast, and feeds the clowder of stray cats that regularly gather around her.

“To suddenly find yourself with so much time in your hands is both a curse and a blessing,” she told me. “Never in my life have I read so many books and also written so much. It’s deeply satisfying. But I will not say that I have not felt the pain of being alone.” At the height of the COVID pandemic, she was not allowed visitors except immediate relatives, her lawyers, and a member of her staff. “It’s hard when you’re not allowed to interact and talk to friends.” Before these restrictions were put in place, my late wife Karina and the late social welfare secretary Dinky Soliman had been among her regular visitors. “Oh, how I miss them both!” she exclaims with undisguised sadness, remembering those precious moments when they would come to sing and laugh and tell stories.

Even as she was already hobbled by her failing health, Karina always felt energized after visiting her embattled friend, staying up late to keep the webpage of EveryWoman buzzing with the latest update on the struggle to free Leila. That afternoon, as I sat in the visiting room listening to the unbreakable Leila de Lima, I understood why women make better warriors for democracy than men. They’re tougher, more patient. Refusing the facile consolations of cynicism, they remain steadfast in their hopes for a better nation.