Former Senator Leila M. de Lima discusses with Pressenza journalist Perfecto Caparas how she fulfilled her senatorial duties—for over 5 years out of her 6-year term—in prison.
“… my being alive and in detention sent a stronger message against the political opposition that there is no line the former President was not willing to cross just to make his critics suffer. I was a living message that allowed him to consolidate power and avoid accountability during his term.”
Perfecto Caparas (PC): During your initial and subsequent time in prison, what were the thoughts that crossed your mind?
LDL: At first, I was hoping that I would be able to get out sooner than later if the Supreme Court granted my petition to annul the charges filed against me. When that did not happen, I hunkered down for the long haul knowing that most probably I won’t be released as long as Duterte was still in power. Of course, at first, it was difficult accepting my fate. During the first year, I still hoped to be released the following year. But then two years became three, then four, and five. I accepted the fact that my freedom depended on Duterte finishing his term. At least with him out of power, I will have a better chance at a fair trial, with judges who will not be under pressure from an authoritarian president.
Next year on February 24 (2023), I will mark my sixth year in prison, but still hoping that it will be my last year as a PDL and that I will finally be granted bail or that the cases against me will finally be dismissed.
From another perspective, and for context, I was detained when I was just elected as a Senator at the height of Duterte’s bloody War on Drugs. I had been spearheading the investigation into the abuses of his programs.
My initial thoughts were contemplating whether my detention would be a pretext for having me murdered and what it would do to my family and my advocacy.
Eventually, I understood that my being alive and in detention sent a stronger message against the political opposition that there is no line the former President was not willing to cross just to make his critics suffer. I was a living message that allowed him to consolidate power and avoid accountability during his term.
Subsequently, my detention has presented me with challenges that cycle feelings of frustration and appreciation on my part.
The conditions of my detention had prevented me from effectively carrying out my duties as a Senator, participating in Senate hearings, and communicating with my constituents.
On the other hand, the outpouring of support from local and international friends and allies has been a revelation. I never imagined I would receive this level of support and acclaim recognizing not only my personal struggles but my advocacies as well.
PC: How would you describe your typical days in prison?
LDL: My days typically start early with my morning prayers, the Holy Rosary and devotional readings. Then I would do my exercises and physical chores. After breakfast, I read the papers and work on my commentaries via dispatches or Tweets. I used to regularly issue, almost daily, such dispatches, touching various burning issues of the day. I now opt to be selective on what issues to comment on.
I also kept myself busy with Senate work when I was still serving as Senator. And that involved reading transcripts of the hearing and position papers involving various measures for deliberation in the Senate. I would also review and approve bills and resolutions for filing.
Since I was not re-elected, at present, I still find a lot of things to keep me busy, though I miss work from the Senate that my staff used to bring inside daily. Nowadays I just spend most of my time reading novels and letter-writing.
I also have adopted several stray cats that roam around the campgrounds and are able to climb through the barbed wires and over the concrete walls, finding their way to my quarters. I feed them regularly. Most of the time they are my only companions when I am not entertaining visitors or meeting with my staff and legal team.
“I have not regretted the path that I took in fighting for what is right and just for the Filipino people, championing the causes of the voiceless, the powerless and the oppressed. And I will continue on fighting once I get back my freedom.”
PC: What challenges and travails do you face in prison?
LDL: I miss being updated in real-time with the news on cable television or the internet because I am not allowed to have access to such things. So I rely on newspapers that are brought to me every morning. Aside from the issue of not being connected to the outside world with a laptop or cellphone, the other big problem is the restrictions that the PNP (Philippine National Police) impose on my visitation privileges. Except for my closest relatives, doctors, spiritual advisers, and lawyers whose unhampered visits are guaranteed by law, most of my visitors have to be pre-approved, especially if they are foreign officials or international NGOs. Lately, the PNP has adopted the policy (verbal) of requiring a court order for the approval of visits. So now I still have to get the court’s permission if friends and colleagues want to visit me in prison. I find this requirement unreasonable, impractical and oppressive.
It can be extremely frustrating to not be able to talk readily to the people I work with. On a personal level, I really long for time to bond with my family and friends.
PC: How do you cope?
LDL: I realize that I have become a resilient person during my almost six years in prison. I guess no one would be able to realize that part of one’s self unless she has actually experienced imprisonment for a long time. My senate work helped a lot to take my mind off the fact that I was actually working from behind bars, even while my tormentors still wielded power and continued with the murder of innocent people in their so-called drug war.
Of course, the support that came from the outside, both local and international, gave me the strength to persevere despite the injustice. At the same time, being persecuted only made me more determined to fight the injustice that befell our country during Duterte’s term. Finally, prayers and a closer relationship with the Lord helped me a lot, especially during those moments of doubts and despair when I struggled to find myself through everything that I was subjected to.
PC: What are your thoughts and insights on dealing with your challenges as a political prisoner?
LDL: I think like anyone else who is imprisoned, I do not think I will ever take anything for granted again, especially the simple joys in life like going to market, cooking for the family, spending time with friends, or traveling. Such simple joys of the average person become fantasies once you are in prison. That is why I am sure that once this is all over, I am determined not to waste a single moment of my life, and I would make every second count for all that is left of my life here on earth.
I have not regretted the path that I took in fighting for what is right and just for the Filipino people, championing the causes of the voiceless, the powerless and the oppressed. And I will continue on fighting once I get back my freedom. I will not be defeated in my persecution and suffering, especially now that I have realized how strong and full of faith I have become.
PC: When Nelson Mandela was serving as South Africa’s head of state, he remarked that he missed the time when he had enough time to think and ponder on things while he was in prison. In your case, as a political prisoner, are there certain things that you might be inclined to consider somewhat as a sort of blessing?
LDL: No innocent person would want to be in prison. But, indeed, isolation does bring certain blessings. For one, I have become more prayerful. I now read the Bible regularly. Mine is a deepened faith in our Creator.
Being in prison gave me the chance to take life more slowly and with more contemplation. Of course, I haven’t read as much outside as when I am now here in prison. The only real luxury inside prison is the time one has for reading. One can read and enjoy books as much as she wants.
The other thing I discovered here is a love for cats. I have a lot of dogs at home. But here inside Camp Crame, my stray cats are my pets, and I have learned to love them as much as I love my dogs back at home.
PC: As a senator, you had been regularly handwriting and issuing statements on issues and matters of public interest while in prison. How were you able to continue dealing with matters of public interest and concern despite your imprisonment?
LDL: Primarily because my imprisonment was one of the effects of the single most important matter of public interest: the killing of hundreds, if not thousands of mostly poor Filipinos in the name of Duterte’s war on drugs. I could not possibly give Duterte the satisfaction of silencing me just because he was able to keep me behind bars. Though limited to writing, and shorn of public appearances where I could directly talk to the people, I had to make the most out of what I was allowed to use in reaching out to my countrymen.
I was elected to protect the interests of my people and I have always felt a sense of obligation to speak out whenever I see abuses and injustice even if doing so meant going against populist sentiments.
For as long as I remain true to my values, my detention will not operate to silence me nor kill my spirit. My journey has always been guided by my values, for better or worse.
If there is anything that my detention has done to me, it strengthened my resolve and sense of purpose. I am here to carry out my mission to speak out and work against injustice and oppression. No amount of political noise and persecution will change that.
PC: How were you able to keep your indomitable spirit?
LDL: With a lot of God’s grace, the love of my family, friends and allies, and the support and concern of the international community for me as a prisoner of conscience fighting for human rights and justice against an authoritarian and corrupt administration. There was always the hope that the tables will again turn and the Filipinos will realize the grave mistake they have done in giving the reins of government to another dictator.
I want to be there, still whole and undefeated, when the Filipinos begin again to value human life and human dignity above everything else, especially over and above a false sense of security offered by a populist demagogue who, at the end of it all, had no real solutions to the country’s serious problems.
LEILA M. DE LIMA
16 Nov. 2022