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Silencing Leila de Lima: President Duterte’s “First Political Prisoner” in the Philippines’ Brutal Drug War

The Philippines senator’s detention is emblematic of “sneaking authoritarianism” amid the president’s bloody war on drugs.

President Rodrigo Duterte has presided over a brutal ‘war on drugs’ in the Philippines including the extrajudicial killings of more than 7,000 people, mostly drug users in the poorest communities. It has produced a grisly display of corpses in the media, few prosecutions, and a general climate of impunity.

But the violence of Duterte’s regime could have been foreseen: it is a nationwide extension of his alleged ‘death squad’ approach in Davao City, where he was mayor for almost 20 years. We know this in part because of Leila de Lima, who in 2009 investigated killings in this city as chair of the Commission for Human Rights.

De Lima’s investigation explored the future president’s potential administrative and even criminal liability for a surge of unsolved murders, including of minors — and summoned Duterte to a public hearing in Davao city. “I publically chastised him,” she told me recently. “No one had ever dared do that to him in his own kingdom.”

Today de Lima is a senator — and she is behind bars, detained on unbailable charges related to drug trafficking. Her arrest, on 24 February, made international headlines and drew condemnation from human rights groups. She has been a relentless critic of Duterte’s methods, and insists she is in jail for that reason only.

The senator’s also had international guests, including myself. I met her in late May, in a meeting room next to her jail cell in the sprawling Camp Crame complex, headquarters of the Philippine National Police, in Quezon City, Manila. The day before, she received a delegation from the Inter-Parliamentary Union.

The New York Times has also interviewed de Lima in jail — and Time Magazine included her on their list of the 100 most influential people of 2017.

But the door to her cell is shut when visiting hours end at 5pm and then de Lima, who describes herself as “Duterte’s first political prisoner,” spends an uneasy 12-plus hours with no contact with the outside world.

The senator’s case is emblematic of shrinking space for scrutiny of Duterte’s government, where political opposition has dwindled through mass defections to his new, personality-based party while civil society critics are also drowned out by his apparent popularity.

Now, her fate rests in the hands of Philippine institutions that are also being eroded by the President’s heavy-handed and populist methods. De Lima has tried to challenge her arrest and the charges against her — and is currently awaiting a verdict from the Supreme Court which could overturn her detention.

When we met, in the steaming aftermath of a tropical downpour, the senator expressed dwindling hope that her situation would be resolved swiftly. Now, more than two months have passed since the Supreme Court heard the senator’s appeal and there is still no sign as to what — or even when — they might decide.

Duterte was elected president in May 2016. At the same time, de Lima was elected senator, after entering the race late and reluctantly. Shortly after assuming office, she filed a senate resolution to investigate extrajudicial killings under his war on drugs.

By late July 2016 — just two months into Duterte’s presidency — these killings had already climbed to almost 500. Today, this figure is more than 13 times larger.

Duterte’s tactics have met a surprising degree of approval in the Philippines, where many people seem to see his approach as a no-nonsense, terminal solution to a corrosive drug problem with its accompanying criminal underworld.

Impunity for police and vigilante killings of the poorest drug users, and sometimes their children and neighbors, may have recently eroded Duterte’s support amongst low-income groups. But his approval ratings among middle and wealthy classes seem to have only gone up.

She said: “My case is a test. Martial law [imposed on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, in late May] is a test. Our constitutional provisions, accountability — does this translate into tools that can check the president? He is testing them. He could use extra constitutional means to overhaul political, legal, social institutions. He has threatened to install a ‘revolutionary government.’ I am a test.”

De Lima had been one of the only public figures to raise concerns, early on, that Duterte’s self-assigned emergency powers governing the war on drugs — which enable police to make warrantless arrests, and hold suspects without possibility of bail — could become a tool for sneaking authoritarianism. In June last year she protested: ‘I’m afraid this is going to be prone to abuse.’

These emergency powers were supposed to last for six months and expire in January 2016, but they’ve been extended. De Lima’s rough treatment has discouraged other critical voices. Meanwhile, reports of ISIS involvement on the island of Mindanao make it more likely that people will accept erosions of civil rights in exchange for security.

It is, to say the least, a precarious moment for Philippine democracy — and particularly for de Lima, a lone voice that insists on calling foul.

Soon after his election — and after de Lima’s Senate investigation opened, into extrajudicial killings — a Duterte ally announced a House of Representatives investigation into drug dealing in the New Biibid Prison (NBP), where the worst drug offenders are kept, during de Lima’s tenure as justice secretary under Duterte’s predecessor.

NBP is a sprawling complex which became the hub of a roaring trade in methamphetamines (‘shabu’) with the complicity of prison guards paid handsomely to facilitate it. In 2014, de Lima had ordered a raid which revealed luxurious conditions and perks for about 20 high-profile prisoners. There were further raids, and de Lima ordered the transfer of NBP prisoners involved in the drug trade to other facilities to break up the business.

Last September, de Lima’s Senate investigation heard from a former hitman who testified to Duterte’s personal management of the ‘Davao death squad’, demonstrating a pattern in the president’s approach. Later, a retired police officer corroborated his claims in a public confession to the media. But in the meantime another Duterte ally in Congress had lodged a motion to oust de Lima as committee chair. She was pushed aside, and the probe into extrajudicial killings slowed to a standstill.

The House investigation into the NBP prison meanwhile produced sensational allegations about de Lima’s personal involvement in the drug trade. She was accused of taking a number of payoffs from prison drug lords, some up to 14,000,000 Pesos (about $283,000), allegedly to pay for her Senate campaign.

Throughout, testimony from imprisoned drug dealers was intermingled with tactics to shame and intimidate her. De Lima’s home address and mobile phone number were read out in Congress, prompting a stream of vituperative and threatening texts. Details emerged of a seven-year relationship with her driver and former bodyguard, Ronnie Dayan, and Duterte even claimed to be in possession of a sex tape.

testimony from imprisoned drug dealers was intermingled with tactics to shame and intimidate the senator

Dayan was also called to testify in Congress and a hearing to cross-examine him descended into a salacious free for all of irrelevant and sexually explicit questions, for example asking him to rate the intensity of their love-making on a scale of 1 to 5.

The Philippines has had two women presidents and many women in local and national politics (29.5% of Congress is female, above the global average). But it is a Catholic majority country and it can be conservative on women’s sexual freedoms. The release of details of de Lima’s relationship with a younger man — immaterial to the accusations — was timed to undermine her credibility.

And it may have been an effective tactic, turning off some former or potential allies. When I asked a prominent former feminist activist, now in a significant government post, about the de Lima case she shook her head and said: “the whole affair was just so sordid. I stayed out of it.”

The testimonies of de Lima’s main accusers — convicted drug lords and former policemen she had transferred from the NBP prison — have received far less scrutiny. The senator says some witnesses appear to have been pressured — or offered rewards — to testify.

One major drug dealer only testified after his father was killed in his jail cell under suspicious circumstances. After alleging that he had made ‘campaign donation’ payments to de Lima, he was immediately admitted to the justice department’s witness protection program.

On several fronts, the case doesn’t add up. The alleged transactions were supposedly made almost a full year before de Lima even announced her intention to run for the Senate. Would she have explicitly solicited support for a campaign she hadn’t yet decided on? She also ran a noticeably modest campaign — unlike the man who lost to her, who had a twerking dance troop (the ‘Playgirls’) at his rallies.

Additionally: If de Lima were financially benefiting from the drug trade, why would she have transferred its masters from the NBP prison to other facilities, disrupting this lucrative business? The charges against her are inexplicably unidirectional — both parties in illegal transactions ought to be charged, not just the alleged recipient. And: there is no hard evidence — no trace of the money has been found.

De Lima has denied the accusations against her and has also contested her arrest which was ordered by a regional trial court. If she is accused of taking money while in public office, she says, that should be filed as a corruption charge with the government’s ombudsman instead.

This is surely one of the first cases worldwide of sitting politician actually requesting a corruption charge (though insisting on her innocence). But cases filed with the ombudsman are subject to bail, unlike the current charges under the country’s draconian drug laws. This means that de Lima would be able to return to her work at the Senate while preparing a trial defense.

Today, waiting for the Supreme Court verdict on her appeal, she is losing hope: like Congress, the Court is dominated by Duterte supporters, and this is beginning to produce an offhand approach to crucial issues.

The declaration of martial law in Mindanao, for example, was not followed by the constitutionally-required joint meeting of Congress to endorse or repeal it. Lawyers and Muslim women leaders have challenged this in petitions filed with the Supreme Court — but again it is unclear how or when the court will rule.

Women’s and feminist organizations have also mobilized in the Senator’s defense. When Duterte claimed he had a sex tape of de Lima, for example, women across the country took to social media to say that if such a tape existed, the woman in it could be any woman or every woman.

But civil society reaction — to the extrajudicial killings and to de Lima’s vilification — has been less outraged than one might expect. Most startling perhaps is the relative silence of some prominent feminists who have instead joined Duterte’s government.

The Philippines’ unique and long-standing women’s party, Gabriela, chose to ally with Duterte after the election and add to his party’s majority. (They were rewarded with appointments including at the National Anti-Poverty Commission and the Department of Social Welfare and Development).

When I asked the prominent former feminist activist, now in a significant government post, about the ongoing extrajudicial killings she said: “life is not perfect. I made a choice. I need to work where I can make a difference.”

Internationally, Human Rights Watch has been outspokenly critical of Duterte and de Lima’s situation. The European Parliament has called for her immediate release, and urged the Philippines “to ensure a fair trial, recalling the right to the presumption of innocence, to drop all politically motivated charges against her, and to end any further acts of harassment against her.”

The Inter-Parliamentary Union has added that it “fails to understand how the accusations against her make sense, given that she has been the one taking action against the alleged drug trafficking in NBP.”

But critical reports, resolutions and articles have been met with derision and insults from Duterte, if acknowledged at all. De Lima told me: “He lambasted the EU for expressing support to me. He is savaging the west and is pro-China and Russia. His image is that he controls everyone and with 80% popularity it doesn’t seem to be a problem.”

The senator had hoped for bail and release by Easter, which came and went without her doing the traditional cooking for her relatives, something that she says was hard for her family to explain to her 83-year old mother, who still does not know her daughter is in jail.

“I don’t know if the President can afford to have me released,” de Lima told me, adding that Duterte “won’t take it sitting down if the Supreme Court rebukes him.” Indeed, there seems to be no resolution of this situation for the thin-skinned image-conscious macho president, short of humiliation for de Lima.

She knows this, and says: “if I lose at the Supreme Court it means indefinite prolonged detention. I am preparing myself psychologically.”

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