Atty. Leila de Lima bares struggles in seven-year detention, plans post-Crame

From working with the ICC to dealing with the “worst President ever,” Atty. Leila de Lima gives The LaSallian a glimpse into her story as she resumes public life.

After numerous denied petitions for bail and the Supreme Court’s affirmation of the constitutionality of her arrest, opposition figure and former Sen. Leila de Lima was finally allowed to post bail in November last year. 

Upon her release from Camp Crame, she wasted no time and promptly took on engagements, including attending press conferences, speaking at events, and even assuming a teaching position at the Tañada-Diokno School of Law (TDSOL). Remaining steadfast despite one remaining drug case, de Lima is pointed and upfront in sharing her experiences and perspectives in an exclusive interview with The LaSallian.

Atty. Leila de Lima is head-on in recapping her seven years of struggle, bravery, and victory in The LaSallian‘s Ten Questions.

How have you adjusted to freedom since your release? Can you share some insights into how you’ve been spending your time?

I am now, more or less, adjusted from a previous world of solitude to one filled with diverse activities. I had a lot of catching up to do—with family, relatives, friends, allies, former colleagues in government, and partners in my advocacies. Lots of engagements, including speaking engagements and interactions with various groups—the academic community, professional groups, and human rights organizations. And, of course, media interviews.

I would have wanted to have more private time with [my] family, but it’s not happening because of many social commitments. I guess a lot of people would all want to have a “piece” of me and listen to my story, my journey. Very exhausting, but at the same time, exhilarating, heartwarming, and touching whenever I see and meet people expressing their sympathy and compassion for what I went through and their joy that I’m now free.

Seven years is a significant portion of anyone’s life. What have you lost in those seven years of incarceration?

I’ve lost many opportunities and personal milestones in life: family occasions, my son’s graduation from law school, significant social gatherings and celebrations, interactions and a more active advocacy work. 

It was particularly painful for me when loved ones passed away without me being able to go to their wake to pay my last respects. The sudden death of former President Noynoy Aquino, former Sec. Dinky Soliman and my only sister-in-law, Marianne, caused a lot of sorrow. Those seven years of my unjust detention were prime years of my life. I could have learned and grown more as a professional and contributed more as a public servant.

Your time being incarcerated overlapped with your term as senator. What are the things or plans that you were unable to accomplish due to your seven years of jail time?

While I was still able to file bills and resolutions, I was denied my right to participate in debates and deliberations, let alone vote on important legislative measures. I missed high-profile Senate hearings such as the one on Pharmally, GCTA-related anomalies at the New Bilibid Prison, [and] Pastillas Scam. I wasn’t there when top Davao Death Squad (DDS) lieutenant, Arturo Lascañas, reappeared in a Senate hearing and recanted his earlier denial of the existence of said death squad and gave testimony of his involvement in criminal activities of the DDS and Rodrigo Duterte.

Moreover, I could have pushed for the enactment of my major human rights bills, to wit: the Human Rights Defenders Bill, CHR Charter, Refugees and Stateless Persons Protection Bill, Comprehensive Prison Reform and Unified Penitentiary bills. To date, these remain as bills, as no one among the current Senators seems to champion their enactment into laws.

The public and media have tagged you as the staunchest critic of Rodrigo Duterte and his administration. We’d like to explore the flipside. Are there any policies, projects, or decisions made by Duterte that you concur or agree with at all?

Honestly, I can’t think of any. I am just thankful he has not done as much damage considering that he was the head of the most powerful criminal organization in the country as sitting president. He did go through the motions of being the president, but that is the minimum expected of anyone who sits in Malacañang, so I do not think that is even something to credit him with. Everything he did damaged this country and the severity of it has yet to be realized in the years to come. He was the worst president this country ever had, bar none.

Before your release, political analysts believed that you—specifically, your detention—may be used as a political weapon. It had seemed that staying mum about you was more of a balancing act for President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. How do you interpret your release within the broader context of the sociopolitical climate in the country?

I am not privy to any design or plots that would have used my incarceration as a political weapon. All I know is that my cases were open-and-shut cases and should have been dismissed from day one if not for the fact that they were motivated and driven by the enmity of the most powerful man in the country and that during his time, no judge could have possibly defied him. It is only natural that with Duterte gone, and without the active support of Malacañang to keep me in jail, the trials would take their ordinary course and the judges [would] realize that all these accusations were manufactured by the Duterte regime in order to silence me. Now, if my being set free helped anyone in any way to diminish the power and influence of Duterte, then so be it. I am free and I helped in chipping off Duterte’s hold on whatever power and influence he still had. What should I complain about [in] such a situation?

Reflecting on your work before your arrest, you were one of the proponents of the Magna Carta for the Poor. Although the Philippine Statistics Authority reports relatively low poverty rates, on-ground surveys by SWS and OCTA show that about 50 percent of their respondents perceive themselves as poor. Why do you think there is a disconnect between the government’s and the public’s perceptions of poverty, and how do you think this should be bridged?

I am not sure if that is even the issue, bridging the government and people’s perceptions of poverty. The clear point is that poverty statistics tend to be underreported by [the] government in order to paint a brighter picture for any incumbent administration. What should be done is to be honest with its assessment of the incidence of poverty and for it to realize that it remains the number one problem of the government.

Before your arrest, you have served as the Commission on Human Rights chairperson and spearheaded the investigation against the DDS. Recently, in reference to the probe, you remarked that the same mechanisms in Davao were applied on the national scale during Duterte’s presidency. Could you specify what are these parallels you saw in Davao and how it manifested in the national scene?

Basically, Oplan Double Barrel was an amalgamation of the DDS’ years of experience in its operations in Davao for the past 30 years before Duterte became president, including Davao’s Operation Tokhang under then-Mayor Sara and City Police Chief Bato dela Rosa. The killing of thousands of suspected offenders is accomplished under the rubric of a supposed drug war, with lists of drug offenders generated at the barangay level. This was done in Davao from the 1990s to 2015, then replicated nationwide in 2016.

The members of the DDS in Davao were imported to Manila and other metropolitan centers to lead the PNP death squads in Duterte’s drug war. These PNP assassins were incentivized and paid per EJK (extrajudicial killings) victim using government funds, namely, the President’s intelligence funds which was increased hundredfold during Duterte’s reign in Malacañang.

What the DDS did in Davao and what Duterte did when he became president was for the taxpayers to pay for the killing of their own citizens.

Early in February, you made a statement on social media in agreement with UN Special Rapporteur Irene Khan’s statement to abolish the NTF-ELCAC. Given your experience as a political prisoner and a target of red-tagging, how do you perceive the impact of NTF-ELCAC’s operations on human rights and civil liberties in the Philippines? How do you suggest the government carry out the supposed intention of the organization to “defeat local communist terrorist groups and obtain sustainable andinclusive peace?”

In my opinion, there need not even be a major government campaign against the NPA because mostly they are already a spent force. The AFP and the government, through the NTF-ELCAC, are just using the supposed communist threat to justify more funding for the AFP and for bureaucratic entities such as the NTF-ELCAC—money that they can control under the guise of fighting insurgency. 

Instead of spending for external defense such as blue-water ships and fighter jets, our defense spending is still concentrated on fighting an insurgency, which all but ceased to be a threat tonational security. The National Democratic (ND) movement itself is dynamic, and there are increasing debates in its ranks on the value of legal parliamentary struggle over that of open armed rebellion. 

Sooner or later, we will be able to draw most of the ND movement into the legal struggle with their armed component playing an insignificant role in their strategic trajectory. Instead of exploiting this division within the ND movement, the NTF-ELCAC is forcing them to unite even more with all the red-tagging and anti-communist rhetoric. This is Cold War thinking; that the NTF-ELCAC thinks [they are] value for the money the public spends to keep it funded when all that we are paying for are untalented and unimaginative individuals with petrified brains still stuck in 1950s Cold War propaganda.

It is no secret within the Lasallian community that you’ve chosen to teach in our own TDSOL. What made you accept the offer of DLSU over those of others?

DLSU is special to me. It’s my alma mater. I obtained from it my pre-law degree, Bachelor of Arts, major in History-Political Science. DLSU ingrained in me the values of faith [and] service to God, country, and its people, as to be able to fight for the victims of injustice, abuse of state power, and the vindictiveness of an authoritarian ruler. In other words, it is my La Salle education where I got my moorings in democracy, freedom, and justice.

It feels good that I’m able to give back and serve the Lasallian community through mentoring of would-be lawyers in our law school.

Seven years ago, you were imprisoned. Where do you see yourself seven years from now? What are your medium-to-long-term plans?

I’m still doing deep reflections on the exact direction I’m going after a long, difficult, and extraordinary life in detention. I’m resuming my private law practice and resumed teaching. No plans yet in politics, as I will continue to pursue my foremost advocacies: human rights, social justice, rule of law, and democracy.

I am committed to help in attaining justice for the victims of Duterte’s sham and murderous drug war and in exacting accountability from Duterte and his cohorts. I am also determined to file charges against those responsible for the fabrication of the charges against me and achieve full vindication for the wrongs and gross injustice inflicted upon me—as a matter of justice.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

This article was published in The LaSallian‘s March 2024 issue. To read more, visit

Kim Balasabas

By Kim Balasabas

Nash Laroya

By Nash Laroya

Sky Serafica

By Sky Serafica

Leave a Reply