MANILA: Former Philippine senator Leila de Lima now walks free after over six years in jail, but she will keep on doing what likely sent her behind bars in the first place – investigating the deaths that happened during former president Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs.
In an exclusive interview with The Straits Times on Dec 1, de Lima, who is out on bail, said she intends to help the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) ongoing probe into Duterte’s anti-drugs campaign during his presidency from 2016 to 2022, when thousands of drug suspects died in police operations and vigilante-style killings.
The ICC is also investigating Duterte for his links to the so-called Davao Death Squad (DDS), a vigilante group that allegedly conducted summary killings in Davao City, where Duterte was mayor for 22 years.
The ICC’s drug war investigation was initially halted at the request of the Duterte-led government in November 2021, three years after Duterte pulled the Philippines out of the tribunal. But in January 2023, the ICC said it was resuming its probe. Six months later, it rejected the Philippine government’s appeal to stop the probe.
“Yes. I want to contribute to the ICC case against Duterte. My experience in handling the investigation into the DDS killings would be very important resource or reference points for the ongoing ICC investigation,” said de Lima.
She said she can serve as a resource person for the tribunal, help its investigators speak to the kin of drug war victims and even look for whistleblowers from within the Philippine National Police.
“I cannot comment on whether they already approached me or that we had communications already. But I made it clear that I can help in whatever way I can,” said de Lima.
As a former human rights commission chief and senator, de Lima earned Duterte’s ire for investigating the killings that happened under his watch as Davao City mayor and, later, as a president waging a war on drugs.
It was Duterte who first publicised de Lima’s love affairs with her former staff, which she later admitted. He also accused her of accepting kickbacks from the prison drug trade when she was justice secretary from 2010 to 2015.
De Lima’s investigations showed a similar pattern between what human rights groups have described as extrajudicial killings in Davao City and Duterte’s drug war.
De Lima claimed there was a vigilante group in Davao that was allegedly paid to kill petty criminals and Duterte’s personal enemies, with the hired killers listed as employees of the Davao City government.
Duterte in 2009 had denied the existence of the DDS, but admitted there were unexplained and unresolved killings in the city where he had vowed criminals would die.
De Lima then turned the national spotlight on these accusations against Duterte in a series of televised Senate hearings in 2016. A retired Davao police officer and a self-confessed hitman admitted they were part of the DDS and received kill orders from the president.
The Duterte government retaliated, first with administration-allied lawmakers conducting their own hearings on the former president’s claims that de Lima was involved in the prison drug trade. They also publicised her personal love affairs and even threatened to release a supposed sex tape.
It all came to a head when de Lima was charged with three drug-related offences months later, and she was jailed in February 2017.
Two of these three cases have since been dropped, with more witnesses recanting their testimonies against de Lima after the Duterte presidency ended in 2022. They said they were coerced to speak against her and that it took them years to recant their statements as they feared for their lives.
A local court has yet to decide on the remaining case, in which de Lima is accused of abetting drug operations at the national jail when she was justice minister and receiving 70 million pesos (S$1.7 million) in proceeds from inmates.
But the judge allowed de Lima and her four co-accused to post bail on Nov 13 “as the prosecution was not able to discharge its burden of establishing that the guilt of the said accused is strong”.
Duterte was succeeded in 2022 by incumbent President Ferdinand Marcos Jr, who now governs the country with his predecessor’s daughter, Sara Duterte, as vice-president.
But recent power shakedowns in the Philippines signify a growing rift in the Marcos-Duterte alliance. Critics had been concerned that Marcos would interfere with de Lima’s court proceedings in a bid to maintain his alliance with the Dutertes, but the president has not done so.
In October 2022, Mr Marcos said he trusts the country’s judicial process and would let the courts judge de Lima’s cases based on their merits.
He used to say that the ICC has no business investigating Mr Duterte, but is now considering the Philippines’ return to the ICC. A member-state of the ICC would have to cooperate in investigations conducted by the tribunal.
Analysts have said that the cracks in the Marcos-Duterte alliance could have contributed to de Lima’s being granted bail.
“The release of political prisoner and former senator de Lima does not take anything from the legal victory of her camp. But it’s also clear that the message, politically, is that this is not a big deal for the Marcoses. But for the Dutertes, it definitely is,” said political analyst Cleve Arguelles of De La Salle University in Manila.
De Lima’s release on bail has reinvigorated the Philippine opposition movement, which Duterte crushed before he left office. There are only a handful of opposition lawmakers serving in Congress after the 2022 elections.
However, de Lima has no plans yet of seeking a Senate comeback in the 2025 mid-term polls.
She conceded that Duterte and his allies have succeeded in tarnishing her reputation and it would take time to rebuild her public image and credibility.
Despite these setbacks, de Lima plans to continue her advocacy work. She will also be teaching a human rights class at the De La Salle University’s College of Law in Manila starting in 2024.
“I could not possibly think of giving up. From the very start, I was not only fighting for myself. I was fighting for all those who believed in what I was fighting for: the supreme value of human life, the integrity of the human being,” said de Lima. - The Straits Times/ANN