Free but Not Finished Fighting: Exclusive Q&A With Leila de Lima
Leila de Lima is no longer in prison. And Rodrigo Duterte, the man she holds responsible for her incarceration, is no longer President. It feels like the end of an era for the Philippines—or perhaps the start of a new one.
“We’re tied now,” de Lima told TIME in Tagalog on Thursday from her home in Manila, in her first exclusive interview with international media since the 64-year-old was released last week after nearly seven years of detention at Camp Crame in Metro Manila.
A lot has changed since 2016, when both de Lima and Duterte were elected in national elections.
Duterte was a popular, no-holds-barred maverick who vowed to kill all drug users and peddlers in what would be the bloodiest campaign the country has seen. De Lima—who started her career as a lawyer before being appointed by Duterte’s predecessors as chair of the Human Rights Commission and then secretary of the Justice Department—was a freshman senator who quickly established herself as the leading voice against Duterte’s war on drugs.
They’d been at odds before, when de Lima as human rights commissioner probed then-Mayor Duterte’s alleged death squads in Davao City. But their discord took a highly publicized, national turn in August 2016, when Duterte vowed to “destroy” de Lima. “She thinks she’s the conscience of the country,” he said.
De Lima, who was named to the 2017 TIME100 list of most influential people for speaking truth to power, knows she was being made into an example of what it meant to go against Duterte. “If something like that is done to somebody like that, a public figure,” she says, “anybody can be in the same boat.”
As years passed, and de Lima languished in detention, key witnesses recanted statements that had been used to persecute her—several saying they were pressured to falsify testimony. De Lima tried to run for senator again in 2022, this time from her cell, but failed. In the last two years, however, her charges have begun to be dropped. Now, only one remains, and after repeatedly applying, de Lima was finally granted bail on Nov. 13.
Duterte, meanwhile, has left politics to a relatively quieter existence. He’s been the subject of an investigation by the International Criminal Court for alleged “crimes against humanity” since 2021, though with hardly any progress to show.
But de Lima isn’t content to move on so quietly. In a wide-ranging conversation about her life in prison, her thoughts about the country she left behind and the one she’s reentering, and her future plans, the former senator is just as brazen and determined as she was seven years ago to hold Duterte and his accomplices to account. “They wanted to break me. So why should I now give them the pleasure or the satisfaction of seeing my spirit broken?”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
In your first press conference since your release from prison, you said that you only had choice words for Rodrigo Duterte. In particular, you said, “God forgive him and God bless him.” You’ve also previously said that you can’t forgive him just yet. Now that the dust has sort of settled a bit, can you still not forgive him?
Not yet. That’s why I said, God forgive him. Because God is all-forgiving. He can forgive everyone. I leave it to God to forgive him at this point.
I’ve been praying for the grace to forgive him. At this point, I cannot, because he has really done so much to destroy my character, my reputation, my life. He has practically ruined my life. And that’s why I had to rebuild it. It’s immeasurable.
In legal parlance, it’s incapable of pecuniary estimation—the damage that was done to me in almost seven years of detention: the lost opportunities, the lost milestones in my life, in my family and personal life. Depriving me of the full opportunity to serve the full term of my mandate as a duly elected senator of the republic.
That’s not easy to forget, not easy to forgive. Maybe someday, yes, but not yet. So, God, just forgive him, but not me at this point.
Do you have any message today for the people of the Philippines?
I hope that they have learned lessons in doing social experiments with a leader like Duterte. That was a social experiment—the populism—and look at the costs that it has caused, that it has resulted to our society, the malaise that it has created, the destruction, the co-optation of institutions.
I hope lessons have been learned, so that that phase of our country’s history would not happen again. They should now be more discerning and be wary about quick-fix solutions to the country’s problems.
It’s been six years and eight months—to be exact—since you were first arrested. Besides the leadership change in the Philippines, what else do you feel has changed in the country?
It’s how social media has been abused. Because social media is supposed to benefit us. Social media has good objectives. But we’ve seen the abuses, how it’s been exploited for criminal ends, for a lot of disinformation. And a great part of my persecution was the massive disinformation, the demonization through social media, through fake news, through the trolls. That is the malaise of social media, and it must really be seen as a great threat to democracy.
Moments after the court granted your bail, you also told the public, “I want to thank the BBM [Bongbong Marcos] administration for respecting the independence of the judiciary and the rule of law.” Do you feel that the administration of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. was involved in your release?
Well, directly? Definitely not. I’m sure of that. I would have known if there was any direct interference from Malacañang Palace. Maybe indirectly, in the sense that we’ve seen the respect for the independence of the judiciary. That’s why I couldn’t help thanking the Marcos administration for that. Because that is what the judiciary needed.
All the judiciary needed was to fulfill its mandate. And delivering justice is just to leave it alone, to respect its independence. The reason for its existence is its independence. So because of that, then we can say that that is the positive role this administration had in my release, but only indirectly.
Do you have any message today for Marcos Jr.?
He just has to be really consistent with his respect for the rule of law, for the independence of the judiciary. Because I do believe that he has shown it. He has upheld the independence of the judiciary insofar as my cases are concerned. And look at the results. It has yielded very positive results. He just has to do more also to further strengthen the independence of the judiciary and also to uphold the rule of law. Because people’s faith in the justice system will be greatly restored if he does that.
Hours after you were released from jail, you also said, and I quote, “There’s got to be a day of reckoning, although I’m not yet focused on that at this point. But there’s got to be a day of reckoning.” What do you mean by “a reckoning”? What do you think needs to happen and to whom?
A day of reckoning is for Duterte to be jailed for his sins—not only against me, but against the thousands of victims of his sham war on drugs.
Yes, he has wronged me tremendously. He has to face proper charges for that. But he also has to face the investigation by the International Criminal Court since nobody is investigating him here in Philippine jurisdiction. That is his primary accountability—with the ICC.
In fact, between that case and the possible cases that I can file against him for ordering or instigating my prosecution, my priority is the ICC investigation. I’ve been announcing that I’m willing to assist in any way I can. Particularly with my experience and my expertise, since I have been investigating him since way, way back. As far as feasible, if I can pursue both, then I would. But if it’s not possible, then pursuing my own cases against him can probably take a backseat, and I have to prioritize helping to build a case against Duterte so he can be held accountable and ultimately be jailed for his sins against the people.
You also said at the same time that “you’re not yet focused on that at this point.” What are your plans for the immediate and long-term future?
My immediate plans are to go back to private law practice and also to teaching law. I used to teach at the College of Law (at San Beda University). I missed that, so I wish to teach again. And then law practice, even if it’s just limited, because I have to earn a living now. It’s practically zero, my finances. I’m in dire financial need, since 2022 when I was no longer a member of the Senate. I’m not into any kind of business. My resources, my savings have practically been depleted. So I have to earn a living, and my way is to practice law once again. So those are my immediate plans.
Now, long-term—I don’t know. I’ve been asked many times whether I intend to go back to politics. It all depends on the circumstances. Right now, it’s far from my mind. I’m not sure if the environment would be right, would be ideal for me to enter politics. It’s not easy to enter politics these days, especially if you do not have resources or the kind of popularity that the majority of the voters would look for. So I’ll play it by ear, but right now, no plans.
Did you feel that you lost support because of your incarceration? Do you think that’s why you lost your 2022 senatorial bid?
Yes, I think that was a factor. Because, you know, people would think, “Oh, she’ll be constrained to fulfill her tasks, her duties, just like she was already constrained during her first term.” They would think that way, because I was able to fulfill my task as senator fully for only eight months, because I was jailed after that. I could only partly discharge my duties then. I could not personally attend sessions, I could not participate in deliberations, I could not vote. There were significant constraints or limitations on the fulfillment of my duties as a senator.
So people may have thought that it would just be a waste of their votes to consider me, because I will not be given the chance anyway to fulfill my mandate fully and effectively. Maybe they thought that there’s little chance of me being released, back then.
And also because of the massive demonization. I do believe that a lot of people believed those lies about me, that I was involved in the illegal drug trade. That was a factor, I think. Although, I noticed that gradually, that impression had toned down, and fewer people had that belief about my guilt in the charges against me.
You’ve previously told us here at TIME, in your early days in Camp Crame, that you’d prepared for detention psychologically. Would you say that you were adequately prepared for the indefinite detention you ended up facing?
I think yes. Because I survived it.
It’s always tough to be in jail. No one would say it’s easy to be in jail. But I survived it because I had the right mindset. I had the right attitude.
I think that I’m able to deal with all kinds of situations, including life in detention because of how my father reared me. You know my father always said, you have to be prepared both for the fortunes and misfortunes.
And also because of my deep faith in God and deep faith in our justice system. I knew that it is through the justice system that I would attain justice and vindication. I cannot falter in my faith in the justice system—even if it has loopholes or weaknesses, especially in terms of the delays, which are intolerable, but I’m able to survive that.
I’ve read that you didn’t eat food being served at the custodial center, and only relied on deliveries from family. Did you distrust the Philippine National Police? Did you think someone would want you dead?
That was the advice of my friends—for security reasons. You know, I’ve adopted this mantra, because I read a book with that title: Don’t Trust, Don’t Fear, Don’t Beg. I adopted that. Don’t trust. Don’t fear. Don’t beg.
Nobody ever mistreated or disrespected me there. I never noticed anyone who was hostile to me. They treated me with professionalism. But trust? I was very conscious of that, never ever to trust anyone there. Not a fellow detainee. Not a custodial officer. I could simply not trust anyone.
Now that you’re free, are you worried at all about your safety?
Yes. Knowing Duterte, his murderous–, his propensity for violence? He is not beyond that. And people have been advising me to take extra precautions.
Have you ever considered just stopping the fight, given the harrowing ordeal you’ve had to go through?
No, not at all. Never.
You see, why was I in jail? Because they’re trying to silence me. They’re trying to break my spirit. They wanted to silence me because of my advocacies, because I was pushing back. I was a threat to them because of my fierce opposition to the way they were waging the war on drugs. It’s totally, absolutely unacceptable to me—the extrajudicial killings. Especially that they were just targeting poor alleged drug personalities, pushers, users. Just the street drug pushers and never the big-time drug lords. So I pushed back. And they wanted me silenced. They wanted to break me. So why should I now give them the pleasure or the satisfaction of seeing my spirit broken?
It never crossed my mind to surrender. And I know that because I’m sure of my innocence, that one day I will be vindicated. One day, the truth will be out. People will know that I’m truly innocent.
While you were in jail, the opposition force in the country has dwindled in numbers in both Houses of Congress. Do you think your detention has had a chilling effect on the Philippine opposition?
Oh, definitely. I was made the poster girl for that. Because I was formerly chairperson of the Commission of Human Rights—this was an important institution—I was formerly the Secretary of Justice—again, a very important position—and I was elected a senator. And if something like that is done to somebody like that, a public figure, anybody can be in the same boat. Something like that can also be done to anybody else. So it created such a chilling effect.
Since the regime change, Duterte’s allies in the current government say that your bail approval and the quashing of two of the three cases against you are a testament to the Philippine judiciary’s insulation and independence. They’re saying that that is enough reason to stop any inquests into the previous government’s war on drugs—which the ICC is doing. Do you agree?
Yes and no. What happened to my cases is a positive development. It shows that the Philippine justice system can work effectively. But insofar as the ICC case is concerned, it has to be differentiated.
The difference is that no local investigation is being done about the atrocities committed under Duterte’s war on drugs. Duterte himself is not being investigated, his chief enforcer Bato dela Rosa, who is now a senator, is also not being investigated, and all other high level officials who may be involved or may be responsible for those extrajudicial killings. The only subjects of the ongoing investigations, as the Justice Department has claimed, are low-level perpetrators. That’s why the ICC has to intervene: because they see that the domestic systems of accountability, insofar as those killings are concerned, are not working.
Now, in my case, finally, and a few other cases, like, for example, the tax evasion cases against Maria Ressa, which have been dismissed also, that’s a positive development because the independence of the judiciary is being respected. If only there were also ongoing investigations of Duterte and other high level officials, then the ICC would not be minded to intervene. That’s the difference. There’s no real inconsistency there, no real conflict of arguments.
Duterte was recently subpoenaed to answer to charges of threatening a sitting congressperson. Do you believe that Duterte is still “above the law”?
He’s starting to be not above the law. He’s starting to lose his invincibility. And that’s good. He has lost his immunity from suit, his shield from that, and I hope it doesn’t stop there.
Duterte does not have a political post anymore, and you as well. You now are both civilians. How does that feel?
Tabla na kami. (We’re tied now.)
I have a fairer chance now of getting back at the injustice that he’s hoisted upon me. Because again, he has lost his invincibility, his power. Although he still has this capacity to create trouble, but to a much lesser degree.
So mas may laban na ako (I have a better shot) so to speak sa kanya (at him).
But even when he was still in power, I’ve never shown him any fear. Because why should I fear him when I’m in the right?
If Duterte was standing before you, physically, right now, what would you say to him?
[laughs] It’s a very difficult question. Right now, in front of me?
“Now, look at me. What do you see now? Have you succeeded? Is it all worth it?”