Detained former senator Leila M. de Lima shares with Pressenza journalist Perfecto Caparas her views and insights on international human rights law in light of her own experiences as a political prisoner.

 “We were able to show that in the struggle against a resurgent authoritarian leader, women were the first to stand up and fight to defend human rights and women’s rights.”

 Perfecto Caparas (PC): How have you been treated in prison?

 Leila M. de Lima: I have been in detention for more than five years now. That equates to two Presidents, nine Philippine National Police Chiefs, and countless Custodial Center commanding officers. Their treatment of me is, to say the least, uneven.

In general, I have been treated fairly except for the occasional restrictions on visitors, especially during the pandemic. I have no problem or complaints about the custodial personnel. Restrictive policies imposed from time to time emanate from higher PNP authorities.

I have experienced being incommunicado during the height of the pandemic lockdown. I have been denied access to the media and prevented from participating in the online Senate sessions. There are times when the custodial authorities just plainly sat on applications for visitations even from prominent personalities.

Though my living situation is still better than most other persons deprived of liberty (PDL), the conditions of my detention have effectively prevented me from fully performing my duties then as a Senator to my constituents and as a human rights advocate. This, in turn, affects not just me but the broader movement in which my voice plays a significant role.

As an advocate and as a political figure, interacting with the media and spreading out the message is essential to producing results to benefit my country. What is likewise important is for me to cultivate my public image and defend my reputation in order to bolster my advocacies.

However, my detention prevents me from effectively doing all that. It has long been my belief that one of the main reasons for my detention is to deplatform me and silence my message.

My justice and human rights advocacy stood in the former President’s agenda of using violence, threats, and intimidation to consolidate power.

 PC: Can you share with us your gender perspectives as a public official and political prisoner?

 LDL: While considerable progress has been made in our struggle for gender equality, particularly as to representation in public offices (albeit still short of the ideal ratio), the Philippines has a long way to go insofar as prejudice against women is concerned.

The foremost weapon used to destroy me was unmitigated misogyny. Once Duterte started to use slut-shaming to destroy me, I was helpless to defend myself. The personal attacks have been sustained long after I was placed in detention. The issue was no longer the killing of hundreds in the drug war, or even the merits of the drug accusations against me, but my personal life. All it did was to show the world who they really are and tell us that there is still much work to be done to combat dirty traditional politics.

The other side of this is that as a result of my persecution by a misogynist President, I was able to harness the support of women’s organizations. We were able to show that in the struggle against a resurgent authoritarian leader, women were the first to stand up and fight to defend human rights and women’s rights.

PC: You are well-versed in international human rights law, norms, and standards. You also officially represented the Philippines before UN human rights mechanisms and bodies as a state functionary. How does your own subsequent personal experience of criminal investigation, prosecution, imprisonment, and trial measure up to international human rights standards?

LDL: Miserably. At the outset, I was subjected to a trial by publicity to pave the way for the filing of bogus drug charges. The President, the DOJ (Department of Justice), and Congress ganged up on me even before any formal preliminary investigation was conducted or even before charges were filed against me. There was absolutely no presumption of innocence in my case. If it were a jury system, the blatant misjudgment would have resulted in a mistrial, a mistrial of the century in fact. I was specifically targeted by the administration for the sole purpose of sending me to jail regardless of whether I indeed committed any crime or not. And for this purpose, evidence was manufactured and testimonies of convicted criminals were fabricated in order for the government to file false charges. Clearly, my right to a fair trial was grossly violated.

“… one of the main reasons for my detention is to deplatform me and silence my message.

My justice and human rights advocacy stood in the former President’s agenda of using violence, threats, and intimidation to consolidate power.”

At the level of the judiciary, the charges filed against me were upheld even if the justices of the Supreme Court cannot agree among themselves on what exactly I was being charged with, thus violating my right to be informed of the nature of the accusations raised against me. To date, I’m denied my right to bail on the basis of the manufactured affidavits of convicted criminals whose credibility under the law and jurisprudence is almost non-existent. Bail can only be denied in capital cases if the evidence is strong. Affidavits of convicted criminals with zero credibility can never be considered strong evidence. Finally, my trials are now going on their sixth year in the two remaining drug cases, violating my right to a speedy trial.

On top of all these, the vicious personal attacks on my womanhood, slut-shaming and character assassination violate my right to dignity as a woman and as a human being.

Verily, there is a serious breach of fundamental rights enunciated under international human rights instruments, chiefly, the UDHR (Universal Declaration of Human Rights), ICCPR (International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights) and CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women).

PC: What specific gaps and weaknesses in the Philippines’ criminal justice system did your own personal experiences reveal?

LDL: Basically, on paper, the system should be working fine. The problem is that many of the assumptions embedded in the operation of the rules and laws simply are not self-evident. First and foremost is the assumption that the DOJ and the courts are expected to be objective and make decisions based on the merits. The truth is, under Duterte, all the justice institutions readily capitulated to cater to the wishes of the President, fearing the same attack launched against me upon themselves in case they earn the ire of the President. In the first place, all the appointments to the higher office of all these people, both prosecutors and judges, are lodged with the President. The problem is that the laws and the rules assume a normal President to be exercising executive powers. The Philippine criminal justice system simply has no safeguard against a President who does not care about the Constitution or the law, who abuses power, and who is himself a criminal.

What, I think, is missing in my case is the accountability of the justice system for wrongful prosecution. There is simply no case against me. What the justice system is doing is making sure that I will stay in detention for as long as possible while waiting for my inevitable acquittal.

It is as if those involved in the prosecution of my case have no fear of being held accountable for the injustice against me.

In other countries, those wrongfully imprisoned are compensated by the State. This makes the justice system accountable for their wrongdoings and places their career in jeopardy for sustaining baseless suits.

It is something that is lacking here. There is a sheer lack of negative consequences against judges and justices who keep those who are wrongfully brought to court in what are essentially sham trials.

PC: How did you try to address those gaps and weaknesses? What needs to be done to address those gaps and weaknesses?

 LDL: During the PNoy (former president Benigno Aquino III) administration, we made sure that promotions and appointments in the prosecutorial service and the judiciary were really based on the credentials of the candidates, rather than connections or influence. But there are a lot of outside factors that are almost cultural and societal in origin that challenge such kinds of merit-based promotions and appointments. Foremost of this is the law school fraternity network that exists in almost all law schools. These fraternities have a lot of influence in the system, though informally, that affects appointments and promotions. Once appointed or promoted, the judges and prosecutors themselves can be influenced by the fraternity networks to which they belong, especially if they owe their appointment to these networks.

Duterte made the utmost out of this system, consistently appointing fraternity brothers and law school classmates either for their loyalty or familiarity, even if some were undeserving or even if there were more deserving candidates. Even I am at a loss of how to go about reducing this informal power that fraternities and other social organizations have in the appointment and promotion of judges and prosecutors. It might entail an overhaul of the entire system of appointments. Until then we just have to rely on the best judgment of the President and the Judicial and Bar Council in making appointments.