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Seven years in prison: I needed to survive — De Lima 

After nearly seven years of incarceration, former senator Leila De Lima rues, “While I know that I am a strong person, I never realized that I could still turn out to be stronger.”

Jul 9, 2024

Elma Sandoval, senior editor

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11-minute read

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The late Vicente De Lima raised his daughter Leila to be strong. She recalls the “spartan training” the former election commissioner put her through growing up. 

Ay, bawal ang maarte,” she shares. Her father demanded that she learn to stand on her own. But his most important lesson was “to fight for what you believe in as the right and just thing no matter what the cost.” 

It is wisdom she has lived by through her 64 years, especially after becoming an advocate for human rights and social justice.

“I never realized I could still turn out to be stronger.” PHOTO: BULLIT MARQUEZ

After nearly seven years of incarceration, former senator Leila De Lima rues, “While I know that I am a strong person, I never realized that I could still turn out to be stronger.”

Languishing in prison, separated from family, basic freedoms curtailed, and prevented from performing her duties as a duly elected public official did not break the former lawmaker and human rights defender. 

There are traces of scars left from the experience. But these are masked by her strong character. She is recovering. De Lima calls this challenging period a “unique journey” – “mahirap, pero may blessing din naman”- and it is a story she wants to share.

***

She walked out of the National Police Custodial Center for the last time on a Monday, five adopted stray cats in tow. It was Nov. 13, 2023. De Lima, a former secretary of justice, after more than six years in arbitrary detention on fabricated drug-related charges, was out on bail.

There were more cats left behind, all of which had provided her comfort and companionship during a most challenging time in her life.

Her single-size cushioned bed inside small quarters within the police compound – her “residence” since Feb. 24, 2017 – was a sleeping space often shared with her favorite feline friends. While De Lima was relieved to finally leave her prison, it was heartbreaking to abandon her furry companions. 

Sana nauwi ko silang lahat, pero hindi ko kaya,” she utters. More than 20 cats was way too many, so De Lima requested the custodial guards to take over their care.

During solitary confinement De Lima’s constant companions were stray cats. PHOTO: A.A.Aera Dizon

***

De Lima never imagined spending half a dozen years in detention. And, for drug trafficking charges that were fabricated after incurring the ire of ex-president Rodrigo Duterte by conducting a probe on his administration’s bloody drug war when she was chair of the Senate committee on Justice and Human Rights.

She accepted her fate, firm in the belief that she would eventually be cleared of the cases – alleging that she tolerated illegal drug trafficking in the national penitentiary and received drug money from convicted drug lords – but had to remain resilient until that happened.

To stay strong and keep sane were her priorities once in police custody. She forced herself into a strict routine to stay mentally alert and physically as well as emotionally healthy. She needed to hold negative thoughts at bay.

A strict routine was needed to keep De Lima strong, healthy and hopeful. PHOTO: BULLIT MARQUEZ

The mother of two was usually up by 4:30 a.m., unable to fall back to sleep.  She started each day with prayers, reading the Bible, and other materials. When it was light, she could step out and walk around the compound. 

Walking was her form of exercise, an activity strictly monitored (on the pretext it was for her security), with guards watching her movements from a tower.  She very rarely, if ever, interacted with the few fellow detainees in other compounds inside the custodial center because police made sure she was separated from them.

At night, her quarters were locked and opened again the next morning. 

The goal from day one of her confinement was to survive until the end. “I really needed to do the daily routines to keep me strong and hindi ako mawalan ng pag-asa (for me not to lose hope),” she says. De Lima knew it was hard to fight bitterness, but her whole attitude was, “I needed to survive this.”

She describes her guards as professionals, who showed her respect and courtesy. They kept their distance because becoming too friendly with detainees was prohibited. “There was never a single instance when they disrespected or maltreated me,” she asserts.

***

On advice of friends, De Lima refused the food provided by the PNP, opting instead to have her food cooked at home and all three meals delivered every morning for safety reasons. Duterte was the president when she was locked up. “Mahirap na. You can never tell. Baka unti-unti na kung anu-ano nilalagay sa pagkain,“ she explains.

De Lima was allowed a small microwave oven to heat her lunch and dinner. A native of Iriga City, Camarines Sur who professes to be a good cook, she would have preferred to have a stove in her detention cell so she could prepare her own food, and share with others, but this request was denied.

They also refused all communication devices – cell phone, laptop, radio or television – even a refrigerator and air conditioner. She had electric fans and only the most basic furniture. It was back to a spartan lifestyle.   

But De Lima was allowed books and she accumulated enough to have her own library. Visitors usually came with either food or books, many of which were duplicated. While there was no censorship of reading materials, there would sometimes be a random inspection of her written work. Nothing was ever confiscated for illegal content.

All communication devices – cell phone, laptop, radio or TV – were denied by the PNP. PHOTO: BULLIT MARQUEZ

De Lima would also garden to keep preoccupied. And every Saturday from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m., she had a movie viewing privilege. Unlike other detainees who watched the movies together though, the ex-senator was always on her own.

The choice of movies were provided by her staff in a hard drive, but first checked by custodial authorities to ensure there were no propaganda materials inserted. 

***

De Lima’s calm demeanor belies her strength. In recounting her days in prison, her voice would drop at certain points and this is when the pain and suffering she endured become evident.  Yet she recalls every memory with clarity.

The pandemic was a depressing time for the human rights advocate. The strict lockdown due to COVID-19 in 2020 totally cut her off from the outside world. 

Visits were already limited before quarantine was imposed nationwide. For several months, at the height of the pandemic, her family, lawyers, and spiritual advisers were barred from visiting. Only doctors, if necessary, were allowed.

Her only human interaction, although usually very brief, was with the guards who brought her meals and other supplies. 

It was a challenge to adjust to solitary confinement. As her way of keeping in touch, she sent handwritten notes to the media (she thinks she had about a thousand in all), expressing her opinion on national and political issues. De Lima may have been incarcerated but she made certain she would still be heard. Her greatest fear, she confessed, was to be forgotten.

One of the many thoughts that constantly ran in her mind was: would people still remember me?

“Would people still remember me?” – PHOTO: BULLIT MARQUEZ

Unlike congested city or municipal jails, the huge custodial center only held a few detainees in several compounds. With De Lima mostly separated from the others, it seemed unthinkable she would figure in a hostage crisis, which the feisty freedom fighter initially thought was only a nightmare. 

***

When a storyteller, tone gentle, begins a narrative with “it happened one fine Sunday” an action-packed tale is not what you’d expect to hear. But that is how De Lima started to recount that harrowing experience on Oct. 9, 2022, which she thought would be her end.

Sundays meant fewer guards in the custodial center. And three Abu Sayyaf prisoners in another compound took advantage of that security lapse, jumping the single guard tasked to distribute breakfast. The guard nearly lost his life in that incident.

De Lima, inside her small quarters, was half lying in bed praying the Glorious Mysteries of the Rosary, totally unaware of the commotion outside. The guard on tower duty – a sharp shooter – managed to take down two of the jailbreakers.

She was on the third Glorious Mystery (Descent of the Holy Spirit) when the third escapee barged inside her room, eyes blazing, an improvised knife in hand, and grabbed De Lima declaring, “Ma’am, kailangan kang sumama sa akin.”

She briefly pauses her story, and smiling at the memory, said, “All throughout the ordeal, he was calling me ma’am.”  

The hostage taker forced her out of the room, saying his two comrades were dead and that she was his only way out. “Ikaw lang po ang pag-asa ko para makalabas dito,” she recalls him saying.

Knife poked at her chest and dragged out of her quarters, she thought it was her end. PHOTO: BULLIT MARQUEZ

At first, it seemed a nightmare to De Lima, until it dawned on her the man was dead serious as he dragged her outside, knife pressed to her chest. By then, she was screaming from the pain of the sharp weapon poking at her and from stumbling several times as he pulled her along.

Sumisigaw nga ako na ang sakit,” she says, her gentle tone the total opposite of the terror and excitement of her story. He took her as a human shield, insisting De Lima was his ticket to freedom.

***

By this time the custodial center’s main gate had been locked, and security reinforced, including a SWAT (special weapons and tactics) team. The hostage taker stood behind De Lima, one arm around her  neck, the knife at her chest, leaving the tower guard with no clear shot.

The guard shouted: “Huwag mong sasaktan si Ma’am! Hindi kita babarilin basta ‘wag mo siya saktan!” 

Realizing they could not walk out of the gate alive, the man dragged De Lima back to her room, sat her on a chair behind a door, tied her legs and her hands behind her back, then blindfolded her.  

He started making demands. She sensed at this point that he was already suicidal. “Isasama kita ma’am, papatayin muna kita, tapos ako. Kasi alam ko naman na hindi na ako makakalabas dito ng buhay,” he told her.

When the guy asked for water during negotiations, the police were ready and shot him at close range. The terrified De Lima did not witness the shooting or how he fell, but was deafened by the gunshots. He was in front of her when gunned down, his blood splattering her clothes.

“It was life threatening. Akala ko talaga katapusan ko na,” she says. De Lima admitted her fear escalated when he heard the man mention Allah, the Muslim’s term for God, and knew he was praying. “I didn’t understand much, pero sabi ko naku nagpapaalam na ito kay Allah, humihingi na siguro ng tawad,” she remembers thinking then.

De Lima also started praying quietly: “Lord, bahala na kayo. Bahala na kayo sa pamilya ko.

***

Prayer sustained De Lima during her entire detention. “My whole stay there was a total surrender kay Lord.” She was certain of her eventual freedom. “I knew that someday the truth of my innocence will come out. It’s just a question of when,” she says. 

She knew God to be all-knowing because He knew everything, especially the truth. “Bahala na po kayo kung kailan ako dapat makalabas dito,” she would pray. Her every prayer would always end with, “Thy will be done.”

Prayer was her armor throughout detention. PHOTO: BULLIT MARQUEZ

Having suffered through the injustice and humiliation, the woman considered by many as an inspiration and pillar of strength has no regrets fighting for victims of extrajudicial killings under the Duterte administration. Even if it cost her almost seven years of her life.

“After everything I went through, I never regret anything. Kasi alam ko naman na ipinaglalaban ko lang kung ano ‘yung tama. Naniniwala ako na tama ‘yung ginawa ko,” De Lima insists. 

Her father Vicente would have been so proud. 

(Former senator Leila De Lima shared this story in the July 3 episode of VERA Files’ Tres from Tress podcast with senior editor Tress Martelino-Reyes.)

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