The Price of Being Principled in the Philippines

To the desperate prisoner whose audacious jail break was coming undone—his two collaborators shot dead by a prison sniper and exits blocked—Leila de Lima, once a crusading Philippine secretary of justice, looked like a valuable hostage. He blindfolded her, bound her hands and feet, pressed a shank to her chest and began making demands. Call your contacts, he told de Lima. Have them send an SUV to the prison and ready a transport plane to fly south.

There was a time when de Lima perhaps could have fulfilled these demands or at least entertained them. By October 2022, though, the former secretary no longer had many powerful friends or even her freedom. Like the man holding her, she was a prisoner.

After nearly an hour, the man apologetically told de Lima he was about to kill himself and her—then asked a prison official for some water. While handing over the glass, the official shot and killed the hostage taker. De Lima removed her blindfold to see her legs splattered with blood.

The episode was a particularly traumatic one in de Lima’s yearslong ordeal. A political adversary of former President Rodrigo Duterte, she was arrested in 2017 on drug-related charges that struck most observers as highly implausible and politically charged. Six years later, the Philippines is under a new administration, but still the government’s case against de Lima hobbles along, a symbol of the country’s degradation from the Duterte years of violent populism and autocratic slide.

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De Lima’s case provides “a snapshot of almost everything that went wrong in the Philippines in the last six years,” Fhilip Sawali, a lawyer and de Lima’s former chief of staff, told me over coffee at a Manila hotel recently. “The shrinking of civic spaces, weaponization of legal processes to go after critics and journalists, lawyers, political opponents … misogyny, slut-shaming. Basically, the corrosion of what we used to think of as democratic ideals here in the Philippines.”

Now Duterte is gone, replaced last year by President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., the eldest son of Ferdinand Marcos, the dictator who ruled the Philippines from 1965 to 1986. The younger Marcos has made a point of restoring relations with the United States and other democracies. And given the strategic interests, namely competition with China, at the center of its regional agenda, Washington has incentive to embrace the Philippines’ U.S.-friendly president.

Marcos was treated earlier this month to an elaborate multiday Washington tour, encompassing the Pentagon, the White House, and various think tanks. President Joe Biden told the Philippine president that he “couldn’t think of a better partner to have” in facing “new challenges,” an unsubtle reference to China.

But the continued languishing of a former secretary of justice in a Manila jail is a stain from the Duterte era that has stubbornly attached itself to Marcos. American lawmakers from both major parties have lobbied for years for de Lima’s release, and reiterated these calls ahead of Marcos’s visit to Washington, telling the Biden administration “not to forget the troubling human-rights situation he presides over back home.”

De Lima was acquitted last week on one of the two remaining drug charges against her. But so long as the other remains, she will continue to be detained at Camp Crame, the headquarters of the Philippine National Police, in Quezon City, part of the sprawling metro-Manila region. She sent me 11 pages of written responses to questions regarding her case, her experiences in prison, and the political situation in the Philippines.

De Lima’s troubles may have sprouted from a seed planted as early as 2008, before Duterte was even president. A prominent election lawyer at the time, she was appointed by then-President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo to chair the country’s Commission on Human Rights. The job seemed, to those who knew de Lima, like a promising match: Socorro Reyes, who taught de Lima at De La Salle University in Manila, recalls that even as a student de Lima was “one of those who really impressed me for being so principled.”

One of the first investigations de Lima’s commission undertook involved a group called the Davao Death Squad. In Davao City, on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, squad members were “routinely killing street children and others in broad daylight,” according to a report by Philip Alston, an Australian human-rights expert serving as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions. It did so with impunity, Alston wrote, not least because the city’s mayor, an “authoritarian populist,” claimed that he was unable to stop it. This claim, Alston wrote, was “untenable”: “He dominates the city so thoroughly as to stamp out whole genres of crime, yet he remains powerless in the face of hundreds of murders committed by men without masks in view of witnesses.”

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The mayor’s name was Rodrigo Duterte. In 2009, de Lima launched a probe into the death squad and questioned Duterte himself. The investigation uncovered troubling leads, like a trove of human bones dumped in a quarry, but did not bring any charges, which de Lima attributed to a lack of willing witnesses and Duterte’s immense popularity in the city. She described Davao City as being “under the spell of their ruthless king.” The probe was a bold effort nevertheless, given the prevalence of political violence in the country.

De Lima was appointed Justice secretary the following year, by President Benigno Aquino III. From that position, she led a raid on New Bilibid Prison that disrupted criminal drug networks and revealed that some high-profile inmates were kitting out their cells with illicit luxuries including karaoke machines, jacuzzis, and saunas. More controversially, in 2011, de Lima prevented Macapagal Arroyo, by then out of office and being investigated for corruption and electoral fraud, from traveling abroad to seek medical treatment for a spinal issue, overriding a ruling from the country’s supreme court. Macapagal Arroyo was arrested, but the UN eventually declared the former president’s lengthy detention to be illegal and arbitrary. The supreme court dismissed the corruption case against her. A lower court cleared her of electoral-fraud charges.

De Lima’s time in the spotlight buoyed her bid for a seat in the senate. “She was this firebrand, incorruptible Justice secretary,” said Sawali, her former chief of staff. He first met de Lima in 2015, when he volunteered as part of her campaign team. She was elected in May 2016—on the same day that Duterte, powered by promises to deliver the type of bloody vigilantism that he’d deployed in Davao City nationwide, won the presidency in a landslide. At a victory rally, Duterte urged citizens to kill drug dealers if they came across them—no need to bother with investigations, due process, or the law. “Shoot him and I’ll give you a medal,” he told the roaring crowd.

According to Sawali, shortly after de Lima took office, members of Duterte’s inner circle directly warned her that criticizing the president’s war on drugs in the media was fine, but using her position to do more would have grave repercussions. De Lima paid the warnings little heed. Even early in Duterte’s presidency, reports emerged of mounting extrajudicial killings and summary executions, most targeting impoverished people and low-level dealers. De Lima, as head of the senate’s committee on justice and human rights, announced an investigation.

The move incensed Duterte. In a rambling tirade that lasted hours, he accused de Lima of having an affair with her driver and her bodyguard, alleging that the latter collected money from drug lords detained in the New Bilibid Prison, the facility de Lima had raided years earlier.

Unfounded accusations and bombastic insults were part of Duterte’s style and his appeal. He called former U.S. President Barack Obama the “son of a whore” and said God was a “son of a bitch” and “really stupid.” Many of these outbursts simply passed or were walked back by other officials. But for de Lima, things instead got worse.

On September 15, 2016, as part of her investigation, de Lima brought before the senate a self-described hitman who gave haunting and graphic testimony about his time carrying out killings in Davao, and Duterte’s involvement. (Duterte’s office denied the specific allegations, but over the years he has admitted to taking part in or being present for other murders and kidnappings.) This was the type of damning witness de Lima had lacked in 2009.

The blowback was swift. The following week, Manny Pacquiao, a wildly popular boxing champion turned politician, initiated a successful motion to remove de Lima from her position leading the senate committee. Duterte boasted publicly of watching an alleged sex tape involving de Lima and her driver, musing that he would like to show it to the pope. He suggested at one point that de Lima kill herself.

On February 24, 2017, de Lima was arrested on drug-trafficking charges and held without bail. From Camp Crame, as her case made its way through the Philippines’ legal system—which can be spectacularly sluggish at the best of times—de Lima continued to fulfill her duties as a senator. She had no access to a computer or the internet, so she relied on hand-delivery for documents that normally would have been emailed. Sawali created a system of aides and runners who ferried paperwork between de Lima’s senate office and Camp Crame. “We killed a lot of trees,” he told me.

At the same time, Duterte’s drug war began to draw more media attention and international concern as his term progressed and the body count ticked ever upward. In 2018, the International Criminal Court announced the start of an investigation. In response, Duterte announced that the Philippines would withdraw from the court.

De Lima’s detention drew international criticism as well, but Duterte seemed impervious to its effects. In the United States, a bipartisan group of lawmakers repeatedly raised de Lima’s case in statements, letters, and resolutions. An annual spending bill in 2019 went so far as to bar anyone involved in de Lima’s incarceration from being granted a U.S. visa. Duterte responded by blocking two U.S. senators from entering the Philippines.

De Lima mounted a reelection bid from detention last year. It was quickly swamped by disinformation, much of it violent and sexist. In the run-up to the vote, she was forced to rebut fictitious reports saying she was dead. She was not reelected during the May 2022 polls. Because of strict term limits, neither was Duterte.

“This was what I have been waiting for all along: the end of Duterte’s term, which gives me hope that this persecution will no longer have any power behind it to still keep me imprisoned,” de Lima wrote.

With Duterte no longer the president, de Lima and her supporters see reasons for optimism. Last spring, three witnesses against her recanted their testimonies, saying they were coerced and threatened by government officials to make false statements. A few months later, an ombudsman dismissed the bribery charges against her, and on Friday, a regional court acquitted de Lima of one of two remaining drug-trafficking charges. She faces life in prison if she is convicted of the final charge, however.  

Marcos has all the while been working to repair ties with Washington. Earlier this year, the two countries reached an agreement that gives U.S. forces access to four bases in the Philippines in addition to the five that they could already use. Last month, a record number of troops from the U.S. and the Philippines took part in annual joint military exercises. Marcos watched the final flourish from a beachside observation tower through a pair of binoculars in an olive drab military-style jacket, the first president in more than a decade to observe the drills.

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De Lima’s incarceration—the work of the previous administration and a source of irritation to Washington—would seem like a needless complication for Marcos. U.S. senators and their staff have repeatedly met with the Philippines’ ambassador to the U.S. and officials from the ministry of foreign affairs to press for her release. Her detention has become “a symbolic thorn in the side of two otherwise important allies,” said a senior U.S. Senate aide involved in the discussions, who asked not to be named because they were not authorized to speak to the media. And yet, though Marcos could simply order his Department of Justice to drop de Lima’s case, he hasn’t done so since he took office nearly a year ago.

Publicly, Marcos has said that the matter is up to the courts.  

“This position sort of washes his hands from being blamed for my persecution,” de Lima wrote to me.

She and her supporters point instead to the dynastic, clanlike nature of Philippine politics, which has long been dominated by a few powerful families. Duterte’s daughter, Sara, serves as Marcos’s vice president and was an important political ally during his election bid. The alliance between the two families has at times appeared uneasy, but attempting to investigate Duterte’s drug war or backing the ICC could have political consequences for Marcos. “I have no illusions that the Marcos government will prosecute Duterte,” de Lima wrote.

Recently, motorcycles with flashing lights and a line of police vans carrying officers armed with automatic weapons escorted de Lima to a Manila courthouse for a hearing. As she made her way down the hallway to the courtroom, wearing a blue linen shirt, a pale-yellow scarf, and bright-purple eyeglasses, she greeted lawyers and well-wishers, carrying a small cross in her hand.

Reyes and a few other friends sat behind de Lima, who watched the proceedings intently, occasionally passing notes to her lawyers and adding her own hushed commentary.

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“He’s eating his words,” she remarked at one point about a surprise new witness who spoke so softly that court officials needed to remind him repeatedly to speak up.

During a brief recess, de Lima swapped book recommendations with a friend. A recent memoir by a Human Rights Watch researcher was “a good read. Not boring,” de Lima said as she snacked on tiny boxes of raisins. The hearing ended after a few hours, and she was led out and back into the convoy that had delivered her.

In the courthouse parking lot, near a fountain with a sculpture of Lady Justice at its center, a small group of de Lima’s supporters took refuge from the sun under a tent. She exited, and they gathered up their signs and parted ways. Some reconvened the following evening for a candlelight mass for de Lima at a small shrine erected to commemorate the People Power Revolution that toppled Ferdinand Marcos in 1986. “To us Filipinos,” Reyes told me, the Catholic Church “is the court of last resort.”