'Justice will come': jailed critic of Philippines' Duterte

by Ayee Macaraig

Manila (AFP) - A year after being jailed on charges she insists were concocted to silence her, a top critic of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte says she believes justice is coming.

Senator Leila de Lima has been pursuing Duterte for almost a decade, beginning with allegations he directed a death squad against suspected criminals while mayor of the southern city of Davao.

But now that the International Criminal Court has opened an initial probe into the deadly anti-drug war Duterte launched after becoming president 20 months ago, she says she has new reason to hope.

"I see the day justice will come. I hope for that day. The preliminary examination will eventually get to an indictment," De Lima told AFP at national police headquarters in Manila, where she is being held.

"I feel this is the start of my vindication, but true vindication comes when I am absolved of the charges," added the 58-year-old, who was named one of Time magazine's 100 most influential people of 2017.

De Lima's detention, which began with her arrest on February 24, 2017, stems from allegations she took bribes from imprisoned drug lords while justice secretary from 2010-2015 under then-leader Benigno Aquino.

The charges are serious enough that no bail is permitted, and it is common for even minor cases to take years to work their way through the Philippines' creaking justice system.

De Lima says the allegations were cooked up to stifle her criticism of Duterte, and she has earned the support of international legislators as well as rights watchdogs.

Amnesty International considers De Lima a "prisoner of conscience" and in its annual report released Thursday tagged her as "the most prominent critic of the 'war on drugs'".

"She is a symbol of the coming signs of the times where it will be dangerous for any Filipino citizen to speak out against the government," Amnesty International Philippines country director Jose Noel Olano told AFP.

After being elected to the Senate in the same 2016 election that handed Duterte the presidency, De Lima led an inquiry into the thousands of people killed by police in his anti-drugs war.

But Duterte's allies in the Senate shoved her aside from the inquiry and subsequently concluded he was not involved in any wrongdoing.

- 'A damaged man' -

The senator is not being held in the horrific conditions of the Philippines' jam-packed jails, and is instead in a compound with other high-profile detainees where they have some privileges.

She has access to outdoor space where she can exercise, garden and feed stray cats. But continuing with her work has been a challenge.

Phones are banned and she does not have internet, so De Lima communicates the old-fashioned way -- handwritten statements picked up by her aides.

"I have to keep fighting," she said, smoothing her floral print shirt.

"If I keep quiet and fade away into oblivion, people will think I deserve this."

De Lima started her career as an election lawyer and first tangled with Duterte as the head of a national rights commission in 2009.

She investigated allegations he used a death squad to kill suspected criminals in Davao, but no charges were brought.

"He has never forgotten that and he has never forgiven me," De Lima said. "This (detention) is his vendetta."

Duterte and his allies have launched campaigns to sideline other critics, including the anti-graft prosecutor and the Supreme Court chief justice -- both of whom are women.

"He's got a dark psychology. He cannot stand strong-willed women. He has a misogynistic character. He is a damaged man," she said.

De Lima fills the hours reading, alternating between "Fire and Fury", the incendiary book on US President Donald Trump, and election rival Hillary Clinton's "What Happened".

"Duterte and Trump are the epitome of how populism has infected the global order. They are of the same kind except for the propensity to kill."

Nights are lonely, De Lima says, when she misses her sons, two grandchildrens and ailing 85-year-old mother.

As a guard knocked signalling visiting hours were over, her thoughts turned to Duterte. "If he escapes justice in this world, he cannot escape divine justice."

"No one escapes divine justice."