Duterte’s first political prisoner

When then Justice Secretary Leila de Lima ran for the Senate in 2016, little did she know that she was on a road taken by a growing number of politicians, one that leads to incarceration. These include former presidents Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, Joseph Estrada, former Senate president Juan Ponce Enrile, and Senators Jinggoy Estrada and Bong Revilla. And if the “tradition” of imprisoning previous presidents continues, then former president Benigno Aquino Jr. would be next in line. President Rodrigo Duterte is looking for “evidence” to file charges against Aquino. And who knows, Duterte’s successor – unless it’s Bongbong Marcos – might find ways to detain Duterte when he finishes his term of office? But that’s still a few years into the future. His time will come.

Today, it’s De Lima’s time to be in the limelight. But for someone who enjoyed being in the limelight throughout her career, De Lima might find it a little uneasy this time with life behind bars. The prospect of a long detention like Erap and Gloria seems likely since President Rodrigo “Digong” Duterte has taken personal interest in building the charges against De Lima. But that doesn’t seem like she’d be muzzled into silence. On the contrary, her detention energizes her into focusing on one goal: to bring down Duterte.

Surmise it to say, bringing Duterte down would most likely result in release from detention. However, given the enormity of Duterte’s power over the Philippine National Police (PNP) and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), which are both headed by Duterte loyalists, there is nobody in the country with the capability to depose Duterte. It takes muscle to bring Digong down and Digong has all the muscle right now.

Known for her feistiness, Leila is like a pit bull: once her jaws are locked on your neck, you might as well say your prayers and hope that you’d be able to say “Amen” before your life expires. But a pit bull as she is, she couldn’t get near Duterte close enough to do him harm.

So, does it mean that Leila is in a Catch-22 situation? It seems like it. Does it also mean that she has to wait until Duterte is out of office in 2022, at which time the next president might release or pardon her? That’s a long wait.

Perhaps, Leila should have remained in the private law practice, a top-notch lawyer who scored the 8th highest mark in the country’s annual bar exams in 1985. She built a successful law practice with a specialty in helping prominent politicians in election court cases.

Fighting lawlessness

In 2008, De Lima took a detour from her lucrative private law practice and took a government job as chairwoman of the Commission on Human Rights (CHR), a government independent agency. It must have been an eye-opener for her because for the next two years, Leila worked with a handful of lowly paid lawyers fighting lawlessness. They investigated extrajudicial killings (EJKs), abductions, and human rights violations. And this was where she crossed paths with Duterte, then the mayor of Davao City, who was rumored to have authorized killing hundreds of drug addicts.

In my article, “Lawlessness in Davao City” (February 20, 2012), I wrote: “Rodrigo Duterte, who was mayor from 2001 until he was termed out in 2010, gained notoriety when a vigilante group known as the ‘Davao Death Squad’ was believed to have been responsible for the murder of more than 1,000 citizens including children and young teens. Although he was never proven to be associated with the death squad – which was often referred to as ‘Duterte Death Squad’ — he had made public statements that seem to encourage or condone those killings.

“In February 2009, according to the Human Rights Watch, Duterte told reporters: ‘If you are doing an illegal activity in my city, if you are a criminal or part of a syndicate that preys on the innocent people of the city, for as long as I am the mayor, you are a legitimate target of assassination.’

“The report, ‘You Can Die Any Time: Death Squad Killings in Mindanao,’ details the ‘involvement of police and local government officials in targeted killings of alleged drug dealers and petty criminals, street children, and others, and describes the lack of any effort by the authorities to investigate the killings and bring those responsible to justice.’

“The report further said, ‘The longtime mayor of Davao City, Rodrigo Duterte, has made numerous statements attempting to justify the killing of suspected criminals, believing that such killings have a deterrent effect on crime and have made the city a safer place. But according to statistics provided by the Philippines National Police, the number of annual crime incidents has increased some 219 percent in the last decade, while the city’s population rose only by 29 percent. An increasing number of death squad killings appear to have made crime rates worse in Davao.’

“The administration of then-president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo ignored the ‘targeted killings’ in Davao City. Not only did she ignore those extrajudicial killings, she appointed Duterte in 2003 as her consultant on ‘peace and order,’ which seemingly indicated that she approved Duterte’s modus operandi of operating outside the law in fighting criminal elements.”

In the crosshairs

Duterte became Leila’s main target for the spate of EJKs in Davao City. She opened a probe into the Davao Death Squad. In 2010, however, she left the CHR with the probe unfinished to take the job as Secretary of Justice under the Aquino administration.

It was then that she raided the New Bilibid Prison (NBP) to dismantle the perks and amenities accorded to inmates convicted of illegal drug trafficking. It was an act that put her in the crosshairs of the drug lords.

In 2016, she ran and won a seat on the Senate. That’s when she got herself in trouble. She tried to revive the old charges of EJKs against Duterte during his 20-year reign in Davao City. Add the more than 7,000 EJKs since Duterte took over last June and Leila had a truckload of cases that she could pore over to look for evidence that would nail Digong down as a “serial murderer.”

Duterte could respond the only way he does and that is to launch a deadly counter-attack against Leila. “I will have to destroy her in public,” said Duterte in August last year. He then proceeded to build a case alleging she was one of the nation’s biggest drug traffickers. He lined-up several convicted drug lords who testified against Leila before a Senate investigation panel. Gee, that’s like using Al Capone’s testimony against Elliot Ness. And it worked!

The government finally filed drug charges against De Lima based on the testimony of several convicted drug lords at the NBP.

A Muntinlupa trial court judge ordered the arrest of Senator Leila de Lima on Thursday, February 23, over drug charges. The question is: Can they convict a Philippine Senator of drug trafficking based on the testimony of drug traffickers?

At the end of the day, just like previous political prisoners before her, she, too, would be freed after serving time for opposing Duterte.

Who’s next?