BRUSSELS: Philippine Senator Leila de Lima is campaigning hard for reelection in May – and her days start early.
She rises around 4.30am with prayers, chores and exercise, before turning to work on policy matters and the drive to retain her legislative seat. She takes breaks to garden and tends to a more than 10-strong gang of stray cats she has adopted.
The twist is that the 62-year-old de Lima’s pre-poll routine plays out alone in a suburban Manila jail. On Feb 24, she will have been held for five years on drug charges she says are trumped-up because she opposes President Rodrigo Duterte.
The description of the senator’s idealistic efforts to kindle democracy in detention comes from written replies to questions I sent her via a trusted associate.
De Lima is a casualty of an old political order that has collapsed, fewer than 40 years after a popular uprising ousted the dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
Rights groups say her fate is also a case study in how governments in nominally democratic countries around the world are cracking down on critics.
Many of the targets are women, reflecting what some specialists in autocracy see as a sign of the particular threat they pose to authoritarians.
De Lima herself wants outsiders to connect all the instances worldwide where government critics are suffering “the same, or worse” fates as her.
“This is not the fight of a few; these are not isolated cases,” she said in the answers sent back to me. “This is a pandemic in its own right – and we have to fight this scourge as one.”
Asia is a big part of this global story. Lawmakers across Southeast Asia faced “drastically increased” threats and harassment last year, the Asean Parliamentarians for Human Rights group warned in December.
While this partly reflected the arrests of Aung San Suu Kyi and other politicians by Myanmar’s military rulers, legislators also faced problems in the Philippines, Malaysia and Thailand.
All three countries hold elections and appear to have mechanisms to ensure accountability and the rule of law, but in practice lack both.
In the Philippines, the “chickens are coming home to roost” after long-standing governance failures, argues Richard Heydarian, a Manila-based political analyst.
He points to decades of chronic state corruption, neglect of legal institutions and a lack of popular pressure for human rights.
“Clearly the case of Senator de Lima underscores the total absence of rule of law in the Philippines,” Heydarian said.
“The country is extremely vulnerable to institutional co-optation by strong-willed, authoritarian and demagogic leaders. President Duterte has definitely been exhibit A of that.”
De Lima’s case is the more emblematic because she was once a political establishment insider. She is the daughter of a former senior national election official and worked in private legal practice before specialising in human rights.
She served as justice secretary under Duterte’s predecessor Benigno ‘Noynoy’ Aquino between 2010 and 2015.
She has acknowledged previously that support for Duterte’s bloody war on drugs in part reflects public frustration with past failings of the judicial system.
Duterte still enjoys high approval ratings as the end of his term nears in June, even though thousands have died in his drug war. His arch critic de Lima, by contrast, has spent the past half-decade in jail despite never having been convicted of a crime.
I first met de Lima in February 2017 at her Senate office in Manila, just down the corridor from the base of boxer-turned-legislator Manny Pacquaio. It was immediately clear that something was not normal. De Lima had television crews camped outside her door.
They were there, the senator explained, because she was expecting the police to come and detain her. Our conversation quickly showed why Duterte might see her as a troublesome opponent.
She was calm, collected and combative. Even the scarves she habitually wore draped around her neck suggested the towels of a fighter preparing for a bout. “I am ready to be arrested any time,” she told me.
Duterte had already made his antipathy toward de Lima clear. A few months previously, he had said evidence existed to charge her and put her in jail. Police accused her of soliciting and receiving at least 10 million Philippine pesos (US$200,000) from jailed drug dealers.
De Lima rejected the accusations against her as “simply surreal”. She said they relied on the tainted testimony of “drug convicts”. Some of these were even part of a gang she had targeted as justice secretary, she added.
The senator claimed the case against her was politically motivated because of her previous clashes with Duterte.
She had led a 2009 probe by the official Commission on Human Rights into hundreds of alleged killings by death squads in Davao City under Duterte’s mayoralty.
She then launched a Senate investigation into the country-wide drugs war launched by Duterte after he became president in June 2016.
Two days after I visited de Lima, authorities arrived and took her into detention at the Camp Crame national police headquarters.
A few weeks later, Duterte declared her the country’s “No 1 drug lord”. She has been in the same prison ever since, as the legal process drags on.
“It’s awful that the person who has been the most vocal critic on human rights in the Philippines has been languishing in detention for the past five years,” said Rachel Chhoa-Howard, a researcher on the country for Amnesty International, which has declared de Lima a prisoner of conscience.
“And her case is not receiving the amount of attention it should.”
De Lima herself predicted this outcome when I met her at Camp Crame in July 2017. She said that as long as Duterte was president, she expected to remain in jail as a warning to others.
“Because he had, early on, made an example out of me,” she elaborated in the document I received indirectly from her this month. “If you dare speak truth to power, you will be ‘de Lima-ed’.”
The senator replied in some detail to the questions I had submitted. The neatly formatted PDF file sent to me might have lacked the visceral desperation of a scrappy jailhouse letter, but it had the same power.
It was a message smuggled out of incarceration to contradict an official narrative of guilt.
I heard de Lima’s forceful but measured voice as I read her responses. She pointed out with lawyerly precision that it was not quite right to suggest she had been detained without trial.
Court proceedings against her began in mid-2018 – and have unfolded ponderously and inconclusively ever since.
During that time, authorities had “failed miserably to present even an iota of credible, relevant and admissible evidence”, the senator argued. “This charade has gone on for long enough, as was my oppressors’ intention,” she said.
“It’s a scary prospect that this could be done to a sitting senator, because we could only imagine what could be done to an ordinary accused.”
De Lima said she had no complaints about the Camp Crame jail staff and was being “treated fairly” by her captors. She avoids prison rations, though, for fear of being poisoned. Her household, staff, relatives and friends bring food instead.
De Lima’s reading materials include spiritual devotionals, John Grisham thrillers, political memoirs and theory-of-everything non-fiction such as Yuval Noah Harari’s “Sapiens”. Her current novel is “Flights” by the Polish Nobel laureate Olga Tokarczuk.
The choice seems poignant: a book preoccupied with psychological claustrophobia and possibilities of escape.
The personal cost of de Lima’s confinement is growing. She is particularly pained that she can’t be with her mother, who has dementia and is now very ill. Her mother still doesn’t know de Lima is in jail, because no one has told her.
“It’s my siblings’ choice, to spare her from agony,” the senator explained.
De Lima said she missed singing and dancing, as well as activities that once seemed mundane but are now unattainable luxuries. She listed cooking, shopping and long-distance driving.
“But those are the on-the-surface longings or lamentations,” she observed. “The real injury to the whole being of one who is falsely accused and unjustly incarcerated is incapable of precise articulation.”
The Philippine government denies the case against de Lima is politically motivated. Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra told me the legal processes were “moving as they should”.
The Supreme Court had ruled in April 2018 that there was probable cause for the senator’s arrest, he noted. (The justices split 9-5, with one dissenter arguing that de Lima’s constitutional rights had been “wantonly violated”.)
Guevarra blamed the delays in de Lima’s trial on retirements and recusals of judges, interlocutory motions filed by both sides, and courthouse shutdowns due to the pandemic. The switches of judges are contentious.
De Lima argued that they reflect an unease among some members of the judiciary about being “complicit” in prolonging her detention.
Guevarra counters that the senator’s case is being conducted properly – and in line with practices in democracies elsewhere.
As would be the case in other jurisdictions, she cannot be released unless and until she is acquitted, granted bail or sees the case against her dismissed, he said. He added: “Senator de Lima has been afforded all her constitutional rights in an impartial and open trial.”
But critics say such arguments ignore increasingly overt political pressure on the Philippine courts. In a 2018 controversy, the Supreme Court voted 8-6 to remove Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno for allegedly failing to make required financial disclosures.
She denied wrongdoing; one of her fellow judges branded the vote to oust her a “legal abomination”.
Sereno’s expulsion sparked outrage among Duterte’s opponents because of comments made by him in the run-up to the decision. Supreme Court judges are appointed by the president from a shortlist prepared by the Judicial and Bar Council.
Duterte had declared Sereno, the country’s first female top judge, an “enemy” and called for her removal. She had criticised aspects of his drug war and voted against other contentious government plans.
These included extending martial law on the southern island of Mindanao, where the military was battling Islamist militants.
Sereno and de Lima are far from the only women to face Duterte’s wrath. He clashes with many men, too, of course, but his dealings with women often appear to have a special bite.
The offensive statements that are his political trademark have long included what many see as blatantly misogynistic rhetoric.
He once joked about not getting the chance to violate an Australian missionary who was gang-raped and murdered in Davao in 1989. Last year, he said the presidency was not a job for women – even though two of his five most recent predecessors were female.
Duterte has made unsupported lewd claims about de Lima, as well as crude remarks about his female vice president, Leni Robredo. His deputy is elected separately and is now the most prominent liberal candidate running for president in the May 9 election.
Robredo was one of a group of Duterte critics accused in 2019 of sedition, but the case against her was dismissed in 2020.
Other modern-day authoritarians, including former US president Donald Trump and Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro, have also disparaged women.
This kind of behaviour may reflect political strategy as well as personal psychology, academics Erica Chenoweth and Zoe Marks suggested in a piece published in Foreign Affairs in February.
These leaders intuitively understand and fear how women’s empowerment has historically “expanded and fortified democracy”, they wrote.
Prominent female involvement in mass movements increases their size, widens their appeal and opens up new modes of protest, the authors argued.
Women’s demands for specific changes in politics and economics also tend to push both in a more progressive general direction.
The autocratic backlash against these trends shows that misogyny and authoritarianism are “not just common comorbidities but mutually reinforcing ills”, they wrote.
Another high-profile woman targeted by Philippine authorities during Duterte’s time in power is the journalist Maria Ressa, who jointly won last year’s Nobel Peace Prize.
She has faced a barrage of what rights groups say is an intimidatory legal action, including a conviction in 2020 for cyberlibel. In Ressa’s Nobel award lecture in December, she said the charges filed against her “could send me to jail for about 100 years”.
“Please ask yourself the same question my team and I had to confront five years ago,” she told the assembled dignitaries in Oslo. “What are you willing to sacrifice for the truth?”
It is a question with which de Lima says she has had to grapple. She claimed she had rejected suggestions made to her that if she kept quiet about rights abuses she could be freed. “That is not a situation that I could live with,” she said.
Duterte is constitutionally obliged to leave office in June, but de Lima is dismayed by the prospect of who may follow.
The leading candidate in opinion polls for May’s presidential election is Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr He is the son and namesake of the autocrat ousted in the 1986 “People Power” revolution.
The hopes of those days feel increasingly distant to de Lima.
“It seems like, instead of healing and progress, we are regressing as a society under the influence of false narratives,” de Lima said. “(This one) takes advantage of the fact that those who remember the (Marcos era) atrocities are older, and memories have faded.”
In the digital age, it is easier than before to publicise cases of alleged arbitrary detention – but perhaps also easier to be distracted from them. De Lima’s proxy social media activity could even give a casual observer a perverse impression of business as usual.
Her short Twitter biography – “Senator, Human Rights and Social Justice Champion” – does not even mention that she is in jail.
De Lima admits her reelection push from prison is an against-the-odds battle. She had to go to court simply to win the right to do a campaign photo and video shoot.
She styles the authorities’ opposition even to this “straightforward request” as a telling sign of what is at the heart of the case against her.
“This is not about fighting the illegal drug trade,” she said. “This is about silencing the voice of one woman.”