March 25, 2023

Manila – For the previous six years, Leila de Lima has been detained within the Philippine Nationwide Police headquarters, the place she has endured the isolation of a worldwide pandemic, been taken hostage throughout an tried jail break, and mourned the loss of life of a number of stray cats that she adopted as her pets and companions.

However she stays defiant.

“I can’t give the chief oppressor the satisfaction of being overwhelmed,” de Lima, 63, instructed Al Jazeera in an interview, referring to former President Rodrigo Duterte.

The previous senator has all the time been an outspoken critic of Duterte and his state-sanctioned crackdown on unlawful medicine that rights teams say left 1000’s of, largely poor, younger males useless,

She discovered herself detained shortly after asserting a Senate investigation into the drug battle. Accused of taking drug cash whereas she was justice secretary, de Lima was arrested on non-bailable costs and positioned in police custody in Manila.

Now, de Lima’s defiance is marked by a relaxed optimism. Wearing a shiny pink shirt, beige trousers, with a lightweight pink scarf round her neck and a small cross wrapped round a handkerchief in her palm, the previous senator exudes decided hopefulness — with good motive.

As Duterte wrapped up his time period final yr, key witnesses started retracting testimony that they had made in opposition to her,

Final April, self-confessed druglord Kerwin Espinosa issued an affidavit and apology saying that his statements in opposition to de Lima had been the results of “stress, coercion, intimidation and critical threats to his life and his household”.

Later, prosecution witness Rafael Ragos, who was an officer-in-charge of the Bureau of Corrections in 2012, additionally retracted earlier court docket testimony during which he stated he had delivered cash from drug lords to de Lima. Ragos claimed that his testimony was “false” and coerced by Duterte’s justice secretary Vitaliano Aguirre.

Chatting with Al Jazeera, Aguirre dismissed the allegations in opposition to him as “trash” and forged doubt on Ragos’s motives. “He already testified in opposition to her eight or 9 occasions, even on nationwide tv. Then he immediately modifications?

“Nothing can destroy the power of the proof. Our case in opposition to de Lima is not going to crumble,” Aguirre insisted.

New bail petition

The witnesses’ retractions of their testimony are each validation and vindication for de Lima. In a 2020 interview with Al Jazeera, de Lima referred to as the costs in opposition to her “bulls***” and expressed doubt that she may ever get a good trial whereas Duterte was in workplace.

“I’ve forgiven them already. However I’ll by no means forgive the chief oppressor—perhaps simply not but. However I’ll always remember,” she stated.

Leila de Lima's supporters attend a mass calling for her release on February 17. One is wearing a black T-shirt reading 'Free Leila Now'.  They have their hands out in prayer.
Leila de Lima’s supporters proceed to name for her launch, holding a mass final week on the EDSA Shrine in Manila, Philippines [Jam Sta Rosa/AFP]

“This [witness retractions] helps our narrative that the witnesses had been bribed, coerced, or pressured and that the costs in opposition to de Lima are manufactured,” stated Filibon Tacardon, a lawyer for de Lima.

With Ragos’ testimony retracted, de Lima’s protection crew can now petition for bail, pending decision of the case. A earlier petition for bail was denied in June 2020.

De Lima’s detention and the bloody crackdown on unlawful narcotics proceed to be condemned by a number of human rights teams and international governments.

Diplomatic relations between the Philippines and america and Europe turned strained because the nation’s human rights observe report deteriorated dramatically throughout Duterte’s six years in energy.

In 2019, the US handed a decision invoking the International Magnitsky Act, demanding de Lima’s launch and people answerable for her detention to be banned from coming into the US.

Final yr, the European Parliament warned that it’d withdraw commerce privileges with the European Union below the European Generalized Scheme of Desire Plus (GSP+) due to the Philippines’ noncompliance with its human rights obligations.

Greater than 6,000 Philippine merchandise profit from the GSP+ preparations, which embody decrease taxes on exports.

The GSP+ standing of the Philippines will expire in 2023.

Earlier this month, supporters referred to as on present president and son of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos Jr to launch de Lima. Marcos Jr gained the presidential election in Might final yr.

“Marcos Jr’s foremost agenda is to cleanse the Marcos identify of its darkish historical past. He could also be extra inclined to curry favor with the worldwide neighborhood, not like Duterte,” stated Carlos Conde, senior researcher for Human Rights Watch (HRW).

In a state go to to Brussels final yr, native media reported Marcos Jr to be sending alerts to the worldwide neighborhood that he “will adjust to human rights requirements”.

Private grudge, political vendetta

De Lima first earned Duterte’s wrath in 2009 when she was head of the Fee on Human Rights within the Philippines and investigated drug-related killings within the southern metropolis of Davao, the place Duterte was mayor.

When he turned president in 2016 and corpses of alleged drug sellers started turning up on the road, de Lima opened a Senate investigation to look into the killings, which she felt resembled the operations of the so-called davao loss of life squad,

Duterte unleashed a verbal tirade, relentlessly attacking de Lima and belittling her in his televised speeches.

Her legislative allies uncovered particulars of her private life and intimate relationships. Throughout a livestreamed listening to, her residence tackle and cellphone quantity had been learn out loud. The following harassment drove de Lima out of her residence.

“It makes one marvel what sort of pleasure Duterte derived from the general public torment and personal detention he made de Lima undergo all these years. It was a private grudge that ran deep,” stated HRW’s Conde.

Teresita Deles turned shut mates with de Lima once they each served as cupboard officers below a earlier administration and “had been the one two girls within the safety council”.

She and de Lima additionally shared a love for dance. “The 2 of us typically began the group dancing throughout socials. We might invite the others to hitch, however it was normally solely the ladies officers who would,” Deles stated with amusing.

When de Lima was arrested, Deles was an everyday customer. Other than the friendship they shared, Deles stated that what occurred to de Lima “hit me in ways in which I nonetheless haven’t gotten over”.

“First was the blatant assault on human rights defenders. When the defenders themselves are below assault, the place do you go? Then there was the very public assault on her womanhood and the Filipino individuals didn’t stand up,” stated Deles, who started her profession as a girls’s rights activist.

“I believed the misogyny, that form of public hatred and assault on girls would by no means be accepted once more. However individuals had been even laughing. I believed to myself, ‘the place did we go unsuitable?’” she added.

When lockdowns pressured everybody into their properties, the 2 exchanged letters had been delivered by de Lima’s employees. Deles, 75, who’s immunocompromised, visited de Lima final December and was glad to see her buddy in excessive spirits.

“They by no means acquired to her soul. She has discovered her centre. She is going to be capable of stand as much as anybody and something. We’d like her now greater than ever,” stated Deles.

Undeterred by her extended detention, de Lima hopes to return to human rights advocacy, beginning with serving to out within the Worldwide Prison Court docket (ICC) investigation of the drug battle,

However first, she needs to make up for misplaced time along with her household, particularly, her mom, who’s in her 90s and affected by dementia, and her two sons, Israel and Vincent.

Some have expressed concern that if she is granted launch, she might discover herself in peril.

However de Lima is unbowed. She shakes her head vehemently. “There’s merely no substitute for freedom.”

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