You were an academic achiever as a student, consistently finishing each school year at the top of your class. You took up Law and managed to graduate as the class salutatorian. You ranked 8th in the bar exam. You became a professor of Law. As one of the most prominent election lawyers in the country, you handled and won high-profile cases for candidates such as Koko Pimentel, Alan Peter Cayetano, Grace Padaca, and Ed Panlilio, among others.
When you were appointed Commission on Human Rights chief, you fearlessly investigated extra-judicial killings, abductions, and human rights violations perpetrated by security forces, like Jovito Palparan, and by government officials, like then Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte. As Justice Secretary, you were at the frontline in bringing those who were involved in the multibillion-peso PDAF scandal to justice. You filed cases that led to the arrest of prominent personalities such as former Pres. Gloria Arroyo and sitting Senators Juan Ponce Enrile, Jinggoy Estrada and Bong Revilla. You filed a 5-billion peso smuggling case against Phoenix Petroleum, a syndicated estafa case against Globe Asiatique, and a murder case against then Palawan Gov. Joel Reyes. You probed the Ampatuan Massacre, the Atimonan blood bath, and the alleged INC abductions. You were the first DOJ Sec. who dared to raid the New Bilibid Prison to dismantle the perks accorded to the high-profile inmates there. In doing so, you single-handedly disrupted the operation of their lucrative drug business that was apparently operational inside the supposed maximum-security facility of the said penitentiary. You were part of the government’s legal team that received the favorable ruling over the country’s case against China’s WPS maritime claims from the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague. As head of the Inter-Agency Council Against Trafficking, it was under your watch that the Philippines was removed from the US Human Trafficking Watchlist, which paved the way for our upgrade to Tier 1 status. As a newbie Senator, you were one of the most productive legislators with a total of 90 bills and 108 resolutions filed. You also fearlessly launched an inquiry into the spate of killings happening under the guise of a drug war.
But this administration had a special way of honoring people like you.
You became its favorite punching bag and target of character assassination and slut-shaming, and of its supporters’ scorn and ridicule. You have been vilified and demonized for being Pres. Duterte’s most vocal, most fearless, and staunchest critic. On February 24, 2017, you were arrested and jailed.
The case against you? Violation of the Dangerous Drugs Act for allegedly extorting money from the Bilibid inmates who traded and trafficked drugs inside the prison!
Not an ounce of illegal drug was found in your possession, not a trail of the purported drug money was established, and not a single witness of unquestionable reputation and motive was presented, yet for more than 17 months now, you’ve been languishing in solitary pre-trial detention.
The world is watching, though.
They have seen that, even behind bars, you continue to perform your legislative duties largely through the capable hands of your staff. Via your hand-written statements, the Dispatches from Crame, you continue to share your voice and speak truth to power. You remain steadfast in your commitment to freedom, justice and the rule of law. You stay vigilant and fearless in expressing your dissent and condemnation over the countless killings, the wanton violations of human rights, and the culture of impunity and travesty of our democratic institutions, religious faith, cultural and moral values, legal processes, and constitutional sovereignty.
They have witnessed that, instead of allowing this wicked regime to break and silence you and to weaken your spirit, you have used your incarceration to find your inner strength in asserting and fighting for what is right and just amid the formidable odds. And the grace with which you accepted this “detour” in your life’s journey just solidified their conviction that, indeed, all this is nothing more than a work of a deranged and vindictive president who uses all his power and influence and all the government machineries at his disposal to fabricate lies, fake news, and black propaganda about and against you, and feed them to his gullible supporters and paid army of trolls.
Since you were thrown into prison, and for your exceptional contribution to the advancement of human rights in the Philippines, you’ve been reaping international recognition left and right — and from prestigious award-giving bodies, no less. You are also being referred to as a Prisoner of Conscience.
In 2017, you received the following accolades: Time Magazine, World’s 100 Most Influential People; Amnesty International, One of the Most Notable Human Rights Defenders Under Threat; and Foreign Policy, 100 Leading Global Thinkers.
In 2018, you were conferred with the following distinctions: Fortune Magazine, World’s 50 Greatest Leaders; The Asian Correspondent, 5 Power Women of Southeast Asia; Amnesty International, Most Distinguished Human Rights Defender; Amnesty International, first ever Ignite Awards for Human Rights; The Diplomat, Woman to Watch in Southeast Asia; and just recently, Liberal International, Prize for Freedom.
The members of the international community recognize political persecution when they see one. How I wish I could say the same for our countrymen.
PERSONAL ENCOUNTER WITH SEN. LEILA
When I went to the PNP Custodial Center in Camp Crame last July 15 to visit Sen. De Lima, I had virtually no idea what to expect. I was just asked if I’d be available on that day from 9 am until 12 noon. When I excitedly said “Yes!,” I was told that there would be six of us from the #BabaeAko Movement, that I should wear comfortable clothes because it could get very hot inside, and that it was okay to bring food. That was it. Oh, and a message that said, “Excited daw si Sen. Leila to meet you!”
That made me so nervous I wanted to throw up.
Bearing a pot of flowers that I picked up from Dangwa on our way to Camp Crame, and a box of pastillas and two packs of chicharon I brought from Malolos, I was among the first to get to the appointed meeting place. After signing on the logbook, surrendering our mobile phones, having our bags checked, and being thoroughly frisked twice, we were ushered into a small room with around twenty monoblock chairs neatly arranged to face the small table at the front. There were three stand fans scattered around the room, and an abaniko atop each chair. Good thing it was drizzling outside so the temperature didn’t bother us as much.
In no time, the little room became packed with around thirty people. Some, like Sen. Leila’s family, spiritual advisers, and friends, were obviously “regulars,” while others like me were first-timers.
Someone carefully laid a white cloth over the table, and positioned my pot of flowers at the center, and a standing crucifix, a candle, and sacred vessels beside it. The room was transformed into a chapel.
When Sen. Leila waltzed into the room with a beaming smile, sparkling eyes, and arms outstretched in warm welcome, everyone’s attention inevitably turned to her. She was like an instant ray of sunshine on that gloomy day. Dressed in a comfy sleeveless blouse, a pair of leggings, and her trademark scarf, she was a perfect vision of excellent health, a mind at peace, and a joyful heart. I could not help but notice the glow in her cheeks, the lilt in her laughter, and the bounce in her every step. According to one of her spiritual advisers, Sen. Leila’s solitary detention has allowed her to reflect more intensely on herself, her soul, and her mission. That should explain her serene and pleasant demeanor.
She greeted each of us with a hug, a beso-beso, and brief yet friendly pleasantries. The holy mass was about to start.
Three priests — Fr. Robert Reyes, Fr. Albert Alejo, and Fr. Flavie Villanueva — officiated the mass. After the homily, all the first-timers and latecomers were, one by one, asked to stand at the front, face the crowd, and share something inspiring. I was the first to be called (ugh!), with about ten others who followed suit. The last to speak was Sen. Leila’s 34-year-old son, Israel, who gave a short but extremely sweet and innocent speech. Israel is one of Sen. Leila’s angels and sources of strength and inspiration (the other one is Brandon, her 11-year-old grandson. Like Israel, Brandon has autism, too.). Sen. Leila’s own reflection on the gospel immediately came after.
The mass lasted for two and a half hours.
While the group dispersed into smaller groups, there were people (Sen. Leila’s family and staff members, I assumed) who set up a buffet table at the back of the room. From a place of prayer and worship, the room is yet again transformed — this time, into a dining hall.
I was fortunate enough to be seated at the only dining table in the room. With me were a fellow activist from BabaeAko, Fr. Albert, a husband-and-wife tandem (who, I heard, would like to refer to themselves as the writing couple), and our gracious host, Sen. Leila.
It was during this interesting lunch-cum-discussion interaction (they did all the talking/speculating/bantering while I, all the listening/observing/absorbing) and the ensuing interviews I conducted with her and some of the people who know her best that I learned a great deal about the good Senator — pieces of information that ranged from amusing and entertaining to fascinating, enticing and intriguing.
TIDBITS ABOUT SEN. LEILA
Recalling her life outside of detention, I learned that she has always been a keen and voracious reader –the proverbial bookworm. Like you and me, she also loved to watch TV series and movies. To de-stress during weekends, she used to drive around (sans her bodyguards), go to the wet market, do her own shopping, buy her own groceries, and play host to her family that she invites for either Sunday lunch or dinner. She knows her way around the kitchen and can cook a mean Bicol express and laing. Her sotanghon guisado is also something that her family always looks forward to.
Sen. Leila loves to dance; she is particularly good at ballroom dancing. She plays volleyball, a sport that she was active in even way back in high school. She co-founded the Lambda Rho Sigma Sorority at the San Beda College of Law. And she has 13 dogs at home – labradors, jack russels, chihuahuas, and dachshunds. Her favorite, though, is Coco, a Japanese Spitz.
She regularly went to Manaoag to attend the Sunday mass. It was part of her panata, as was joining the 5-km Good Friday procession in her hometown in Bicol. It’s also her family’s tradition to celebrate Christmas by giving gifts to indigenous peoples in the province – a practice that was started by her late father.
Growing up, her father, former Comelec commissioner Vicente de Lima, was her confidante and guiding light, especially when it comes to making major decisions. He was the one who raised her to be studious, focused, and principled. However, it was her mother who “balanced her out” by exposing her to regular activities girls grew up with in their town. Just before her father died in 2012, he warned her against joining politics.
Now, she knows why.
Going into public office, let alone dipping her toes into the murky waters of politics, was actually never in the senator’s radar. When she was younger, she only dreamt of becoming a lawyer like her father. But, then, duty called. However, she never imagined herself being criminally charged and/or jailed, as “being dirty and corrupt is not in (her) DNA.”
After she had been judicially annulled with her former husband, Atty. Plaridel Bohol, she promised herself never to marry again. Asked what she looks for in a man, she said that it is neither the looks nor the intellect. It’s not his bank account, either. Attitude is what’s most important for her.
She is a workaholic by nature, which, she says, accounted for her shortcomings as a mother to her two sons. She thus considers herself immensely blessed for having understanding children who love her despite her flaws.
She is very protective of her ailing 84-year-old mother. In her want to shelter her from the painful truth, she and her three other siblings concocted the story that she is in the US for an extended study leave.
Sen. Leila’s daily routine nowadays starts at around 5:00 in the morning by praying and reading her daily Bible devotionals. Then, she does some exercises, cleans her room, and takes a bath (using timba and tabo). Between 8:00-8:30 a.m., she takes her breakfast while reading the newspapers. Then more reading, this time around, though, it’s of work-related papers and drafts from her staff. To let her eyes have their much-needed rest, she gets a 20-30 minute shut-eye. Then, back to her reading. She takes a late lunch before she goes back to her reading. Between 3:00-5:00 p.m. (on weekdays), she receives visitors. (She calls her three spiritual advisers, her most frequent visitors, her very own Oscar Romeros.) After that, she is all alone in her quarters with only her pet stray cats to keep her company. Her evenings usually consist of more reading, dinner, prayers and Bible reading. She hits the proverbial sack at around 10 p.m.
After much reflection, Sen. Leila views her incarceration as both a blessing and a curse. According to her, there’s actually beauty in solitude. She says, she has become more prayerful, a little tamer, and less judgmental as a result of her incarceration. She has also become less of a perfectionist. Now that she is in jail, she sleeps more soundly at night but “loneliness comes like a thief in the night, from time to time, which causes tears to fall just before I close my eyes.”
LESSONS LEARNED FROM SEN. LEILA
There are people whose lives could be a rich source of valuable lessons. Sen. Leila is definitely one of those.
According to her, nothing worth doing is ever easy. From her words and actions, she taught me to always stand by my convictions without fear or favor. If I am doing what I think is right, I should have neither regrets in life nor fear of death. She said that righteous anger and indignation is also a virtue.
The fighter in her has also taught me to always hope for the best yet be ready for the worst – to not show my enemies any weakness that could be used to kick me even when I’m already down on my knees. But I also learned that I should not allow anyone or any situation rob me of hope because, sometimes, that is all that is left to us.
I learned that I should forgive myself as nobody is perfect. Hatred, for her, is an energy-draining exercise; it is best to not let it consume yourself.
I learned that I should love my work but I should not let it be the center of my life. My relationship with my family, friends, and God should always be at the top of my priorities.
Finally, I learned from her that when there’s nothing or no one else to cling on to, there is God. Always.