De Lima: Detention made me stronger, why stop now?
IRIGA CITY, Camarines Sur, Philippines — Savoring her regained freedom with a visit to her ancestral home here, former Sen. Leila de Lima looked back at her almost seven-year detention at Camp Crame in Quezon City as both a “tragic and fulfilling” experience.
“Believe it or not, it’s a curse because I don’t deserve to be jailed for something I didn’t do and go through the ordeal, but I [also] considered it as a blessing because there have also been changes in my life [and] my outlook,” De Lima told the Inquirer in an interview on Friday at her residence in Barangay San Agustin.
While the years at Crame were long and painful, she considered them “purifying” as they gave “all the time to do personal reflection.”
“What I did wrong, what I missed, what I’ve been missing, especially my family and friends. I know that all of us as human beings, we have strengths and our own weaknesses and there are things that we did in the past that we are sorry about. But we at the same time have achievements and successes in life,” she added.
Those years provided enough time to “reminisce about things” and tell herself there could be redemption in the face of the massive demolition job that was done against her.
De Lima, one of the staunchest critics of then-President Rodrigo Duterte’s “bloody” war on illegal drugs, had been acquitted of two out of the three drug charges filed against her, which all stemmed from Duterte’s allegations that she received payoffs from convicted drug traffickers when she served as justice secretary between 2010 and 2015.
She was also accused of using this drug money to fund her 2016 senatorial bid.
On Monday, the Muntinlupa Regional Trial Court (RTC) Branch 206 allowed De Lima to post a P300,000 bail in the third and last drug case.
“The hardest part is not being able to be with the family. Most of the time [before her detention] … I’d been very busy as a professional but certainly I tried to find [time] to be with them. But while in detention, I didn’t have that privilege. I didn’t have that pleasure. I didn’t have the right,” De Lima said. “It’s supposed to be [my] right to be with them but that was deprived of me.”
At night, inside her cell, she felt particularly helpless whenever news would come of loved ones and friends passing away.
It pained her as well to miss being with family members in marking personal milestones.
“It was also painful when my son graduated and my request to attend his graduation was denied,” she said.
In 2018, the Muntinlupa City RTC Branch 205 rejected De Lima’s request to attend the graduation of her son Vincent Joshua Bohol from San Beda College of Law in June. Presiding Judge Amelia Fabros-Corpuz said no, saying the senator should not be treated differently from other detainees.
What she missed
De Lima said what she missed most while in detention was her work as an elected public official.
“I missed fulfilling my duties … fully discharging freely my functions and mandated duty then as elected senator of the Republic, especially the advocacies that we all know are built on my core advocacy which is human rights,” she said.
Performing her duties as a senator was limited to articulating her thoughts through handwritten commentaries and dispatches. “I wanted to interact with people and spread the reality of all the killing(s) under the [government’s] war on drugs,” she said.
De Lima was barred from attending the Senate sessions or committee hearings, even via videoconferencing. “I wasn’t allowed to vote so I could simplify bills and resolutions. I had a mandate. I’m constitutionally presumed to be innocent because I was not a convicted prisoner and yet they refused to let me perform effectively my mandate,” she stressed.
But despite the hardship, the 64-year-old remained thankful to her police guards and escorts at Camp Crame, saying they treated her well.
“I have no complaints. I was treated fairly with professionalism, with courtesy, with respect. No one has ever disrespected and maltreated me there,” she recalled.
Life in detention made her develop a daily routine as a way of coping.
“I set the alarm and wake up at 4:30 in the morning. It became automatic. Maybe part of aging that you have shorter sleeping hours,” she said.
De Lima prayed a lot, read the Bible, and wrote down whatever needed to be written.
“My communication to friends, birthday greetings and expressions of appreciation and letters of condolences whenever somebody dies, I write those even when it is still dark. And when the sun rises, I start with my physical chores. There was a time for regular and intermittent exercise (like walking) and cleaning the whole compound,” she said.
“No TV for news viewing. It was only allowed for relaxation and my sched is every Saturday from 1 to 5 p.m.”
Internet access and gadgets were thus a no-no.
“All the tweets and dispatches are all handwritten and in order [for it] to be known to public, it is done by my staff,” De Lima said.
‘Di mo nako bayaan’
To fight off boredom and keep her sanity, she devoured books and listened to music.
And yes, Camp Crame’s resident cats added a great deal of emotional comfort.
“I felt sad when I left because they all became attached to me, especially during mealtime,” she recalled, now holding back tears.
On the day De Lima was granted bail, the thought of again seeing her 91-year-old mother Norma excited her most.
“In 2019, I was allowed the furlough to visit while she was sick but our stay was short,” she recalled.
When Norma learned she was finally home in Iriga, she was all smiles and told her in Bicolano: “Di mo nako bayaan (Don’t ever leave me again).”
‘Why should I stop?’
“I’ve never lost faith. My hope never wavered, my faith never wavered, that someday I’ll be free because I’m innocent and the truth will come out about my innocence,” De Lima added.
She vowed to continue seeking justice for herself and for those who lost their lives in the Duterte drug war.
“I just can’t just stop especially now that I’m free because that has been my advocacy and that’s the very reason why they did it to me. So why should I stop?’’
She looks forward to resuming law practice or teaching “for as long as my health permits it and for as long as I have guidance from the good Lord.”
Lacking the necessary resources, a return to politics seems unlikely in the near future. “But I’m not ruling it out, (though) I can pursue advocacies even if I’m not in public service.”