De Lima pursues 'mass murderer' Duterte

Allison Jackson - Agence France-Presse
De Lima pursues 'mass murderer' Duterte
Former Philippine senator and human rights campaigner Leila de Lima talks during an interview with AFP in Manila on Nov. 24, 2023.
AFP / Jam Sta Rosa

MANILA, Philippines — Freed after nearly seven years behind bars, Philippine human rights campaigner Leila de Lima told AFP on Friday she prays for her safety as she seeks to bring "mass murderer" Rodrigo Duterte to justice.

De Lima, one of the most vocal and powerful critics of the former president and his deadly drug war that sparked an international investigation into possible crimes against humanity, was released on bail less than two weeks ago.

While "extremely happy" to be free, the former senator, justice minister and human rights commissioner said she was taking precautions in case Duterte went after her.

"His instigation of thousands of killings makes him a mass murderer so he's very much capable of doing harm to somebody who he thinks is his enemy," de Lima said in a face-to-face interview conducted at AFP's office in Manila for security reasons.

"I like to think that I'm his top enemy. His anger is such that he has not forgotten me or forgiven me." 

Before her arrest on February 24, 2017, de Lima had spent a decade investigating "death squad" killings allegedly orchestrated by Duterte during his time as Davao City mayor and in the early days of his presidency.

De Lima, 64, paid a heavy price for her unflinching pursuit of justice, as Duterte and his allies sought to silence her.

She was forced from the Senate and into a jail cell on three drug trafficking charges that she and human rights groups have described as bogus. Two of the charges have been dismissed. 

Now that she's out, de Lima said her lawyers planned to file lawsuits against Duterte and others with the "appropriate agencies", such as the Department of Justice or the Office of the Ombudsman.

"He was -- is -- my chief oppressor," de Lima said.

"I want him to be held accountable for ordering my prosecution."  

'I'm still the same'

Before her release on November 13, De Lima was held at the national police headquarters in Manila in a compound reserved for high-profile prisoners, rather than in one of the country's overcrowded prisons.

To maintain her physical and mental strength, de Lima said she exercised, prayed, read books and stayed up to date with the news so she could "withstand any threat and to emerge triumphant".

De Lima also cared for stray cats and was allowed to take five of them home. 

"I'm still the same Leila de Lima -- vocal, assertive, critical of everything that is not good in our society, critical of abuses in government, especially of the powers that be," de Lima said defiantly.

But she admitted feeling disorientated and sleep-deprived since her release and said nearly seven years in jail had done "incalculable" damage to her life.

"The lost time, the lost opportunities, the lost personal milestones, the time with family, time with friends," said de Lima, who has two adult sons and two teenage grandchildren.

Shortly after her release, de Lima was reunited with her 91-year-old bedridden mother, who she had not seen in years.

"She never knew that I was in jail. What she knew is that I was in the US for an extended study," de Lima said.

"You cannot reverse those things, simply because of the madness of one man."

'He must stay alive'

De Lima -- who was a highly-paid lawyer before she switched to human rights and was drawn into the deadly world of Duterte -- said she plans to go back to practising and teaching law to earn a living. 

Having served as justice secretary in the administration of Benigno Aquino, who preceded Duterte, and then in the Senate, de Lima said a return to politics was possible.

"I'm not completely ruling it out, but I'm not sure," she said.

"You cannot just run without resources, financial resources." 

For now, she was focused on helping the International Criminal Court with its probe into Duterte's drug war, which killed more than six thousand people, and pursuing those responsible for her prosecution.

"I want them to feel that they failed," she said. 

While it appeared likely that she would be acquitted on the remaining drug trafficking charge, de Lima said she expected to be the target of "threats" and "black propaganda" again.  

Her hope is that Duterte, 78, lives long enough to go to court, either in the Philippines or in The Hague.

"He needs to face the wheels of justice," de Lima said.

"He must stay alive."

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