Shortly after he became Philippine president in 2016, Rodrigo Duterte made an astonishing vow: “I will have to destroy her in public.” The former president was referring to Leila de Lima, then a sitting senator who, days earlier, opened a Senate investigation into the so-called “war on drugs.” On Monday, de Lima finally stepped out of police headquarters in Metro Manila after spending nearly seven years detained there.
Out on bail pending a decision on the last of three bogus drug charges against her, de Lima displayed remarkable grace as she faced the media the first night of at least temporary freedom. “God forgive him and God bless him,” she said of Duterte. In 2009, as chair of the governmental Commission on Human Rights, de Lima investigated the Davao “death squad” killings in Davao City linked to Duterte, then mayor. This investigation cemented de Lima’s reputation as a fearless human rights advocate, and first earned her Duterte’s ire.
As president, Duterte used the full might of the state – prosecutors, the Department of Justice, members of the House of Representatives and the Senate – and mobilized pro-Duterte social media trolls to persecute de Lima. It was a vile campaign intended not just to silence de Lima but also to intimidate potential critics of his administration.
With de Lima behind bars as of February 2017, Duterte continued his abusive rule of the Philippines, intensifying the “drug war” and targeting activists, critics, and journalists. He also launched a misogynistic online disinformation campaign against de Lima, future Nobel laureate Maria Ressa, and other journalists.
De Lima’s supporters and human rights activists are confident she will finally be acquitted in the last drug cases, as several witnesses have recanted testimonies they said were coerced. Many hope President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. will follow through on his promises to uphold human rights by ensuring accountability for de Lima’s persecution, but also for the numerous and widespread rights violations under Duterte.