Pressenza journalist Perfecto Caparas interviewed political prisoner Leila M. de Lima, former senator, justice secretary, and chairperson of the Commission on Human Rights. On October 9, 2022, de Lima was taken hostage by a fellow prisoner inside her cell where former president Rodrigo Duterte’s government locked her up on February 24, 2017 on trumped-up drug charges.

A police officer serves the arrest warrant on Senator Leila De Lima at the Senate grounds in Pasay City on February 24, 2017.
Credit: Avito C. Dalan for the Philippine News Agency.

Davao investigation

Perfecto Caparas (PC): As chairperson of the Commission on Human Rights, you conducted in 2009 an investigation of the targeted killings in Davao. What were the issues, challenges, and concerns that you had factored in when you were deciding whether to carry out this investigation as CHR head?

Leila de Lima (LDL): My only concerns before I started the investigation were that the killings had to stop and that we had to get to the bottom of who is the mastermind behind the killings. I did not consider any other factor like if I was going to receive government support in the investigation. But fortunately, I got the support of the PNP who even went so far as to regularly send a contingent of police officers dedicated to assisting the CHR. They are the ones who assisted us in the field investigation of the Davao Death Squad (DDS) killing fields located inside the Laud Firing Range in Barangay Ma-a. It is when we started to have problems with judges in the issuance of search warrants that the investigation became difficult, basically grinding to a halt as it now became a legal game where Duterte’s lawyers led by his future DOJ Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II employed delaying tactics to prevent us from securing search warrants for the exhumation of DDS victims buried inside the Laud property.

A major challenge also was the availability and willingness of witnesses to testify. Some were unwilling because of fear. Some were willing to be interviewed but refused to execute a formal statement. Meetings with prospective witnesses were clandestinely held and fictitious names had to be used for those who executed affidavits. Some of those who executed affidavits refused to testify during the public hearings. None of the local officials, barangay officials, local police and military summoned during the public hearing would admit the existence of the DDS, and understandably so because of either fear or complicity. What we were confronted with was a whole city participating in the cover-up of summary executions that were a daily occurrence for the good part of two decades that Duterte was the city mayor.

PC: What prompted you to pursue the investigation after weighing those factors and circumstances?

LDL: The CHR was simply doing its job. Back then, before the Ampatuan Massacre, there were only two distinct human rights issues besetting the country, AFP and PNP human rights violations and the Davao killings. The Davao killings have been taking place for around two decades then without any investigation having been conducted by any past administration. With the release of the Alston Report, we decided that the issue of the Davao killings has festered long enough and must be confronted head-on, regardless of who might be the powerful figures behind the killings.

“It is never normal or acceptable for hundreds of civilians to be killed with impunity in the streets of a functioning democracy.” – Leila de Lima

PCHow did you deal with the risks and possible reprisals back then?

LDL: I and my colleagues at the CHR felt confident enough with the security provided by the PNP while we were in Davao. We were not that concerned with reprisals considering that Duterte’s power then barely extended beyond Davao City. His goal then was to ride it out and have the DDS lay low while the investigation was being conducted. They were the ones who were actually being careful, not the CHR investigators. He could not afford a violent pushback against a national institution like the CHR because his power then was localized. The DDS then limited its reprisals against its own members suspected of providing the CHR information. Several were killed, regardless of loyalty, when Duterte started to clean the DDS ranks, leaving only the most trusted among his civilian assets, like Matobato.

PC: And why did you personally go to Davao to investigate Davao’s “killing fields” despite those risks?

LDL: I was confident of the security provided by the PNP and felt that Duterte was not foolish enough to bring more attention to the CHR investigation by actually killing CHR or PNP officials conducting the investigation in Davao. Until the CHR investigation, the most prominent victims of the DDS were local broadcasters and media people who were vocal against Duterte and the DDS. These killings did not reverberate beyond Davao and national interest in them did not last more than a day or two. The killing of a national official of the CHR or the PNP conducting the investigation would have blown up in the face of Duterte, not unlike what happened later with the Ampatuan Massacre where the whole Ampatuan clan was hunted and arrested for the sheer magnitude of the national shock that the massacre generated.

PC: In one of his public remarks, a self-confessed hitman of Duterte’s alleged death squad, Edgar Matobato, revealed that during your actual field investigation in Davao, he and members of Duterte’s alleged death squad were actually lying in wait to ambush you and your investigating team at one of the supposed “killing fields” in Davao where remains of those summarily executed had been buried. Were you aware of that risk?

LDL: No, neither the CHR nor the PNP was then aware of the threat of an actual plan to ambush our field team hatched by the DDS. Even after Matobato’s revelation, I was not entirely sure of how real the threat was, or if it was contingent on the extent of the area that the team penetrated. Personally, an ambush would have been the most stupid thing to do for Duterte. It would have brought down the whole force of the national government upon Duterte, like how the whole force of the AFP and the PNP was brought to bear on the Ampatuans, regardless of the fact that they were allies of the Arroyo Administration, after the Maguindanao/Ampatuan Massacre. An ambush on the CHR and PNP team then would have spelled the end of Duterte and the DDS.

PC: Did you receive any information with regard to that specific threat to your own life and safety when you conducted your field investigation?

LDL: No. Otherwise, we would have taken extra precautions like bringing the AFP with us. I was just convinced that Duterte would not be that stupid as to draw blood on the CHR and the PNP.

Senate investigation

PC: After your election in May 2016 as senator, you as the chairperson of the Senate Committee on Justice and Human Rights initiated and led an investigation into the widespread killing of civilians shortly after then president Duterte launched his so-called “war on drugs”. Knowing that you were up against no less than the head of state, why did you still choose to take up this course of action? Did the prospects of facing reprisals, political or otherwise, not deter or dent your resolve to conduct those investigations?

LDL: At the time, the death toll and the sheer blatantness and brutality of the circumstances of the killings rapidly elevated.  Seeing that happen rocked me to the core, as it would have any other concerned citizen, more so, human rights advocates.

It is never normal or acceptable for hundreds of civilians to be killed with impunity in the streets of a functioning democracy. Something had to be done. And for something to be done, someone had to say something.  Back then, only a few were speaking out, and I feel compelled to strongly speak out.  After all, I was not only a former Chairperson of the Commission on Human Rights, or a former Secretary of Justice mandated to uphold the Rule of Law, but also a Senator who, in my oath of office, included a special and solemn commitment to uphold human rights.

Given that, staying silent, or putting my own personal interest ahead of my solemn duty as a public official was truly not an option I could live with.  My conscience would not have allowed me to sell out the victims that way. (to be continued)