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Leila de Lima


For openly defying Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte — and paying the price

Leila de Lima

In 2016, Philippine Sen. Leila de Lima publicly denounced President Rodrigo Duterte’s brutal war on drugs as chair of the Senate Committee on Justice and Human Rights. In 2017, she did the same — but from behind bars.

De Lima entered pretrial detention in the Philippine National Police headquarters in February on charges of having taken payoffs from imprisoned drug dealers. (The senator called the allegations, which carry a life sentence, “surreal.”) But she went to jail unbowed. “If they think they can stop me from fighting these daily murders, they are wrong,” she said the day police took her into custody — when she became the increasingly authoritarian Duterte’s first political prisoner (at least by her own account).

De Lima — who has been locked up ever since — still holds her Senate seat and continues to fulfill some of her duties. She can file bills and resolutions, though she’s unable to vote on legislation or participate in deliberations.

“There is really no evidence against me, save for the perjured statements of convicted felons,” she says, in response to questions read to her by an aide (who then transcribed her answers and sent them to Foreign Policy via email). “The prosecution is merely twisting false testimonies to fit a narrative that will allow them to keep me in jail for a nonbailable offense, for an indefinite period of time.”

International human rights advocates have denounced her imprisonment, which is based on testimony from convicted drug lords who de Lima said were pressured to testify against her. Her detention is a “blatant attempt by the Philippine government to silence criticism of President Duterte and divert attention away from serious human rights violations in the ‘war on drugs,’” Amnesty International said in a Feb. 23 statement.

Since taking office in 2016, Duterte has presided over an anti-drug campaign that has killed thousands of people — some drug suspects, others simply caught in the crossfire. Few legislators have dared to oppose the popular crackdown or the president — making de Lima one of the notable and bold exceptions. In July, as chair of the Senate Committee on Justice and Human Rights, she launched an investigation into the extrajudicial killings. But Duterte loyalists ousted her from this role a few months later — thereby quashing the inquiry.

From the beginning, de Lima knew how dangerous her unfettered criticism of her country’s leader might prove.

She was aware “that if she kept criticizing the Duterte administration, she would eventually go to jail,” her lawyer, Donnah Camitan, said in February.

But de Lima has refused to shut up. The government is trying to “totally silence dissent and cultivate a culture of double standard of justice, where those allied with the president and his family are accorded impunity,” she says, “while dissenters are being harassed with all sorts of charges.”

Now, however, de Lima fears that Duterte could go even further to silence her. Today she refuses all prison rations, eating only food brought by visitors. While she fears for her safety, she is convinced that the international community’s scrutiny of Duterte’s rule is helping keep her alive. “This administration fears me,” she says.

A foreign country well-positioned to help, of course, is the United States — historically one of the Philippines’s closest allies. Yet U.S. President Donald Trump has abandoned the Obama administration’s scrutiny of Manila’s human rights record. “It is a disturbing testament to the current solidarity among strongmen and the global surge in impunity that de Lima’s cause has not been more embraced,” Samantha Powers, who served as former President Barack Obama’s U.N. ambassador, wrote in April.

Sure enough, Trump warmly embraced Duterte in November, when the two first met in Vietnam. And he did not mention de Lima’s case (or any substantial discussion of human rights concerns) during a subsequent meeting in Manila.

“The very least Mr. Trump could have done is to raise the issue of human rights in order to send a clear message that the U.S., as world leader, is still firmly against abuses and totalitarian governments,” de Lima says. “But unfortunately, we did not see that happen.… Instead, they were both too busy stroking each other’s ego.”

Update: Read a message from de Lima that FP editor in chief Jonathan Tepperman read aloud at the Global Thinkers reception in Washington on Dec. 4.

Benjamin Soloway is an associate editor at Foreign Policy.

De Lima has no access to a computer or the internet in her cell. She handwrites or dictates all communications with the outside world.