MANILA — What would she do if she were free?
This question lingering on the mind of detained former Senator Leila de Lima each time she celebrates her birthday behind bars — her sixth on Saturday.
In a statement read by her brother, Vicente “Vicboy” de Lima, during an online gathering of supporters to mark her 63rd birthday, the former lawmaker said she wished she were just on a birthday vacation.
“I never knew birthdays can be sad,” she said.
“Since 2017, I always wished that each will be the last in detention. I worry that the longer I stay here, I might lose track of the days. So I count my birthdays like I count my days in detention so as not to forget that each day and each birthday brings me closer to my freedom and vindication,” she continued.
“Kailangan lang kumapit sa pag-asa ng paglaya at pagbabago, like how my birthdays are supposed to remind us of hope and new beginnings,” she added.
De Lima, a staunch critic of former President Rodrigo Duterte, was arrested on drug charges on February 24, 2017, after a long drawn-out public feud where the former president accused her of immorality and collecting money from drug sources and vowed to destroy her.
The former senator, who lost a senatorial reelection bid in May, has always maintained her innocence, rejecting the cases against her as fabricated and a product of political persecution.
De Lima, as former head of the Commission on Human Rights, initiated an inquiry into the Davao Death Squad and, as former senator and head of the Senate Justice committee, launched a probe on the bloody drug war — in both instances butting heads with Duterte.
Both topics are also the subject of an International Criminal Court probe.
“[T]his is no longer about me. Six years of injustice is nothing compared to the sufferings of the victims of human rights violations perpetrated by the Duterte regime,” she said.
Duterte stepped down on June 30, leaving more than 6,000 drug suspects killed in drug war operations while human rights groups claim around 30,000 died as a result of the campaign, including those killed vigilante-style or by unknown killers, encouraged supposedly by the former president’s fiery rhetoric.
Duterte had vowed to go after drug peddlers and drug users who supposedly destroy his country but his campaign has been criticized for going only after the poor while big drug lords remain scot-free.
De Lima, who had sought to look into human rights violations in the drug war, is ironically, his highest-profile detainee yet, accused of running illegal drug operations at the national penitentiary.
But the former senator has pointed out her accusers are either convicted criminals who should not be allowed to testify under the rules or coerced witnesses who have recanted their allegations against her.
Just this year, several witnesses retracted their accusations against her — from self-confessed drug lord Kerwin Espinosa to former Bureau of Corrections OIC Rafael Ragos.
Ragos’ testimony was already presented in court on Friday when De Lima’s former bodyguard testified in his defense, citing Ragos’ retraction that he never delivered any money to De Lima despite earlier claiming he personally delivered P10 million to De Lima’s house in Parañaque in 2012.
Ragos is expected to be summoned soon to affirm his affidavit of retraction.
It is these retractions that are giving hope to De Lima’s supporters.
“Nakikita naman natin sa iyong mga kaso, unti-unting nai-expose na, lumalabas ang katotohanan na lahat ng mga paratang laban sa’yo ay walang katuturan, walang basehan at pagsisinungaling ang siyang naging dahilan,” former Senator Francis “Kiko” Pangilinan, a party-mate at the Liberal Party, said in his birthday message to De Lima on Saturday.
“Marami na ang nagreretract sa mga testigo na binabawi ang kanilang paratang. That shows and is proof that from day 1, the charges against you are fabricated, baseless and that you are innocent and that you will fight for it,” he added.
Former Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio is equally optimistic.
“We believe that soon you will be vindicated by the courts because there is simply no evidence against you. The witnesses against you have recanted, revealing to the entire world that the charges against you are pure fabrication,” he said.
Carpio had dissented when the Supreme Court, in October 2017, upheld the arrest warrant issued against De Lima by a Muntinlupa court on drug charges.
He called De Lima’s detention “one of the grossest injustices ever perpetrated in recent memory,” saying the accusation of illegal drug trading against her was “blatantly a pure invention” and a “fake charge.”
Former peace adviser Ging Deles, who is the chair and convenor of Everywoman, a group of 10 women’s groups supporting De Lima, said it is clear the charges have no basis.
“Klaro po na si Senator Leila ay nakulong on trumped-up charges. At alam natin kung bakit. Alam natin kung sino ang nasa likod niyan. Nakita naman natin siguro kung sino yung nangako na ipapakulong siya,” she said.
She pointed out that aside from the recantations, more witnesses have changed their stories or claimed to not know anything.
Seven judges, she said, found ways to withdraw from the drug cases against De Lima.
One of the 3 cases against De Lima has been junked by a Muntinlupa court last year while bribery raps were dismissed at the Office of the Ombudsman this year.
De Lima is applying to be released on bail in the two pending cases.
Lawyer Josef Leroi Garcia, who is part of De Lima’s legal team, said during the online event on Saturday, that they expect to have no more problems in the case involving Ragos but the more challenging case is the other pending drug case where convicts have their own accusations against De Lima.
“Our contention is that both under the Witness Protection Program and the Rules of Court, a criminal convict is not qualified to turn state witness. He can only be a regular witness,” he said.
Unlike a state witness, a regular witness is not immune from prosecution.
Republic Act No. 6981 or the Witness Protection, Security and Benefit Act requires that before a witness can be admitted as a state witness, he/she must not have been convicted of any crime involving moral turpitude.
The witnesses against De Lima were convicted of crimes ranging from murder and kidnapping murder with homicide and drug trafficking — all crimes involving moral turpitude.
What the Duterte Justice department did, according to Garcia, was to pretend that the witnesses were ordinary witnesses so they can testify but when De Lima sought to have them included in the drug charges, DOJ prosecutors dismissed the complaint.
He stressed the need to “impress upon” current Justice Secretary Jesus Crispin “Boying” Remulla “to take a second look at the status of these criminal convicts.”
“What your predecessor did was to use disqualified criminal convicts,” he said.
GO BEYOND THE LEGAL
Criminal law practitioner and professor Theodore Te, also a former Supreme Court spokesperson, echoed the view to move beyond legal strategies by campaigning with agencies such as the Department of Justice, the Department of the Interior and Local Government and even the Philippine National Police.
“Whatever the legal team has filed…pwedeng gamitin as basis for campaign. There’s social media, there’s actual physical campaign outside the court during hearings,” he said.
“Judges are people who are also aware of what is going. So if the profile is raised, then malalaman ng judge yun…It helps to bring to the attention of the judges that people are watching,” he added.
Even visits from foreign delegations, according to Te, would help keep the issue alive.
It is important, he said, to maintain the pressure but calibrated depending on the agency.
“The idea that more people are taking up the cause is important. Kasi kapag lumakas yung suporta, then it becomes something that cannot be ignored,” he said.
“I think part of the campaign also is not just to focus on legal innocence, again, acquittal. But to focus on what had been taken away from her, the human side, the losses to her. Her reputation, for example,” he added.
PROSPECTS UNDER MARCOS PRESIDENCY
Various local and international groups have called on President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, Jr. to release De Lima, including the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, who intend to visit her this week.
The Justice Department initially said it will review De Lima’s cases but has since said it will leave the issue up to the Muntinlupa courts hearing the cases.
De Lima, herself, is aware of what’s at stake in her case.
“My detention has been tagged as a test for Philippine democracy and thus I have always been asked of the prospects post-Duterte,” she said in a statement.
“We are yet to see if the Marcos presidency will follow the trajectory of its predecessor or thread an entirely different path towards truth and accountability. He has committed towards progressive alternatives to Duterte’s bloody drug war but refused to restore the Philippines membership in the ICC and thus making it clear that he is not open on allowing the ICC to intervene,” she continued.
But the former senator remains optimistic.
“So is there hope for democracy in our country? My answer is still and will always be a resounding yes,” she said.
“It lies with the people who continue to uphold on to that vision of a truly democratic society, advocate for it, and willingly work together for a better future for our people. As long as there is collective struggle to challenge an oppressive status quo and hold institutions to account amid repression and setbacks, we will always have hope,” she added.
SUPPORTERS VOW TO CONTINUE FIGHTING
Several personalities who had hoped to visit De Lima on her birthday were barred by the PNP from seeing the former lawmaker at the PNP Custodial Center on Saturday.
But this did not stop them from sharing their messages of support and birthday greetings during the online gathering on Saturday morning, organized by EveryWoman.
“Today is an occasion which is supposed to be truly a most happy event, her 63rd birthday. But sadly today, thoughts of her fills us with sorrow and anger. Sorrow and anger because Sen. Leila is today’s pending 6th birthday in jail. Sixth birthday, isipin nyo yun, andami nang nangyari. At galit tayo kasi alam natin, hindi naman dapat nakulong si Sen. Leila,” Deles said.
“What I feel is a sense of gratitude to Sen. Leila for all she has been, for not giving up, for being our light, for being our example. For the one that we knew would never give up and therefore if there was someone like her, we would never give up then and we would not give up now,” she added.
Among those who sent messages were former Vice President Leni Robredo and Senator Risa Hontiveros.
“Sa kabila ng mga kasinungalingan, sa kabila ng mga isyung ipinupukol nila sa’yo, hindi ka nagpatinag. Nananatili kang malakas at matatag ang loob at kasama mo, nagkakaroon din kami ng lakas na tumindig dahil alam natin, sa dulo, laging mananaig ang liwanag sa dilim, lalabas at lalabas din ang katotohanan,” Robredo said.
“The past several years have been incredibly difficult for us, our communities, that dream of a country that at bare minimum, respect human rights and dignities. At ikaw ang isa sa mga taong patuloy na lumalaban para sa ganitong klaseng Pilipinas. Because of your tireless work as a public servant, even when people try to silence you, you have remained a guiding force in our pursuit of justice, not only for yourself but for every Filipino. Salamat sa gabay, salamat sa pag-asa,” Hontiveros said.
Former Supreme Court Justice and Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales also sent a video greeting.
“You have kept fighting and you have inspired us no end,” she said.
For former senator Pangilinan, he has only one wish for De Lima.
“My birthday wish to you is freedom and my birthday promise to you is we will continue to fight,” he said.
Former Supreme Court Justice Carpio said the truth will come out, in the end.
“We are certain that soon the Filipino people will really know the truth about the evil deeds that evil men have done to you. You must ensure that the ordeal that you are going through, will never again happen to another Filipino,” he said.