Manila, Philippines – Leila de Lima was released from detention last month into what the former Philippines senator calls “a whole new world”.
In 2016, then-President Rodrigo Duterte promised to “destroy” de Lima, one of the loudest critics of his deadly drug war. The president’s supporters began targeting the first-term senator and former human rights commissioner – ridiculing her for an alleged romantic affair with her driver, and accusing her of involvement in drug trafficking.
In February 2017, she was arrested on drug charges she denies and that international observers have said are politically motivated.
“I had this deep sense of disbelief,” de Lima told Al Jazeera. “I never thought that Mr Duterte would go to that extent, that length, of jailing me. I thought it would just be daily vilification, personal attacks, attacks against my womanhood.”
In 2022, Duterte’s term came to an end and he was replaced by Ferdinand Marcos Jr, the son of dictator Ferdinand Marcos Sr. While Marcos has abandoned much of Duterte’s incendiary rhetoric towards critics, drug war killings and human rights abuses have continued under his administration.
De Lima was finally granted bail last month after all but one of the witnesses who testified against her recanted their statements; some have said they gave forced testimonies. Duterte has now left politics, although his daughter, Sara, is vice president. Both could be subject to an investigation into the drug war by the International Criminal Court, even though Duterte pulled Manila out of the court in 2019.
A member of the opposition Liberal Party, de Lima spoke at length about Marcos, whose alliance with the Duterte family is beginning to fracture publicly. Marcos is now studying cooperation with the ICC after insisting earlier this year he would shut out its investigators.
De Lima, 64, says she plans to return to her private law practice and has no plans to run for office after losing a Senate reelection bid from prison last year. But she refuses to remain silent, promising not to give her political enemies the “satisfaction” after her prolonged detention. “I would ask myself, is it worth it?” she said. “The answer was always yes.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Al Jazeera: How are you adjusting to freedom?
Leila de Lima: I’m gradually adjusting and getting my bearings back. There’s a feeling of disorientation after spending almost seven years in closed, constricted, confined quarters.
It was painful for me to be away from my family and friends. There were nights that I would really cry. My mum [who suffers from dementia] didn’t know I was in jail. What she knew was that I was in the United States on study leave.
It was simply hurtful and revolting, at the same time, because I didn’t deserve to be in jail.
Al Jazeera: What did Duterte hope to achieve by arresting you?
Leila de Lima: He destroyed my public persona and my political life because so many people believed him. And that was, if I may say so, a brilliant strategy on his part, because [he and his allies] thought few people would believe those accusations about my alleged drug links. So they thought of first demeaning me and destroying my womanhood so that more people would believe their accusations.
It was so foul, it was so despicable of him to look into my private life, using that and demeaning my person, my character, my reputation.
Al Jazeera: You received extensive support from abroad, but less so in the Philippines. Were you surprised?
Leila de Lima: It was expected. I expected most in Congress, and even the Supreme Court, to be cowed. And the support of the international community was also expected because Duterte was not exactly the favourite of democratic countries. I just happened to be the symbol of opposition against his drug war, this murderous drug war.
I want the world to always be watching our country because it helped. Something worse could have been done to me were it not for the interest of the international community.
Al Jazeera: Duterte and his allies habitually used misogynistic and gendered language to attack you and other women who opposed him. What has made such attacks so effective in the Philippines?
Leila de Lima: It’s still a male-dominated society. The machismo culture is still there. We see very successful women in almost all fields, but it’s still a challenge for us to be recognised for our own merits, not for our sexuality. Women have more empathy – it would be a more ideal society if more women leaders were in government.
After Duterte’s attacks, I got more than 2,000 hate messages on my cell phone. Unprintable words. So I had to get rid of my cell phone.
Al Jazeera: How did you react as you observed these tactics from within detention?
Leila de Lima: He caused a lot of harm to this country. He has demolished institutions, he has co-opted institutions, ruined our cultural values. But I never lost faith in the Filipino people, just as I didn’t lose faith in the justice system.
I worried about the desensitisation of the people, the madness of encouraging killings and not observing the rule of law and due process. I was alarmed that so few people were standing up against him.
Al Jazeera: Has that desensitisation carried over into the present under Marcos?
Leila de Lima: There are now some developments that show we are now in the normalisation process under the new administration. The approach to the drug problem has drastically changed, from [extrajudicial] and state-inspired killings to a more humane approach to the war on drugs. And there’s also some democratic space now. There’s less repression and less harassment of critics and dissenters.
I’d like to believe it’s a positive trend. We have to dismantle the bad legacies of the Duterte regime, especially in the area of human rights. Also, veering away from China and going back to our traditional allies is a very positive development.
Al Jazeera: When you were released, you thanked Marcos for “respecting the independence of the judiciary”. Do you think there’s still work to be done?
Leila de Lima: There’s still work to be done. But this administration just has to be clear in its respect for the independence of the judiciary. Duterte would always try to co-opt the judiciary, such as the removal [in 2018] of Chief Justice [Maria Lourdes] Sereno from the Supreme Court.
I don’t think there’s any country with a perfect justice system. But my case has been a visible example of how an independent judiciary can yield very positive results.
Al Jazeera: In September, activists Jhed Tamano and Jonila Castro accused the military of forcibly abducting them. Justice Secretary Jesus Crispin Remulla has publicly questioned their story, despite presumably being impartial, and their lawyer has accused the Supreme Court of failing to act after they filed a protection order. Should the Marcos administration be more proactive in such cases in ensuring judicial independence?
Leila de Lima: Of course, this administration should be more proactive in everything. It’s beset with a lot of challenges. And the remnants of the old regime are still there. So if the seeds are still there, and if nothing much is done to get rid of them, then you can expect the old ways to be revived.
The National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict [alleged to play a large role in the abduction] should be dismantled right away. It has served no purpose except to sow disunity and encourage human rights violations. That’s why we have the cases of Jhed and Jonila.
Al Jazeera: How well do you know President Marcos?
Leila de Lima: I don’t know him, I just know him as the son of the former dictator. We met once [in 2016], and we hardly talked.
I just know him as a president now. And I’ve been observing him. He’s trying his best, I think, to cut himself from the legacy and stigma of his father. Although they’re not at all acknowledging that, they’re not apologetic about it. But he’s trying as much as possible to build his own image.
We talked over the phone after I was taken hostage in prison. He asked how I was and said he could transfer me to a more secure place, but I said I would rather stay in my detention quarters. He said he would make sure my quarters were more secure, and sure enough, they reinforced my security there.
Al Jazeera: Marcos Jr’s reluctance to acknowledge the atrocities of his father’s martial rule has led critics to worry his presidency doesn’t bode well for democracy in the Philippines. Should he do more to distance himself from his father?
Leila de Lima: Yes. It’s quite tough on his part. He had little political experience. He needs more or better advisers around him, legal and political advisers and consultants. And he must get his priorities straight, must really attend to the challenges of the economy, to inflation. It’s tough on his part because he’s trying to build his own name.
Al Jazeera: As president, Duterte embraced the legacy of Marcos Sr, which many believe paved the way for his son to become president. Is it fair to say this presidency wouldn’t exist without the one before it?
Leila de Lima: What is clear to me is that it was an alliance of convenience. They needed each other. Duterte would have wanted his daughter to be the candidate, but [former President] Gloria Macapagal Arroyo forged a partnership [where Marcos and Sara Duterte would share a ticket] because [Liberal Party candidate] Leni Robredo was having a strong showing with voters. It was a formidable alliance.
Al Jazeera: With Marcos in power, that alliance is now starting to fracture. Is there a point where, just as Marcos and Duterte needed each other, Marcos may need to turn to Duterte’s critics, such as yourself and Maria Ressa?
Leila de Lima: That remains to be seen. It all depends on what values we can commonly share. Right now, we are sharing those values, those targets, especially in the matter of the ICC investigation and the human rights aspect of this country.
So for as long as we share those ideals and those values, there’s always that possibility. We’re not ruling that out. And for as long as he treads the right path of governance, there is the likelihood that some of the support will be there.
But we still consider ourselves, the Liberal Party, as the opposition. We are not that noisy because we are still observing him. But we can see the difference from Duterte. That’s why we cannot openly be hostile to him at this point.
Al Jazeera: Do you think Duterte supporters may break from Marcos over a potential ICC investigation?
Leila de Lima: There’s always that possibility. But we can see the weakening of the Duterte influence. He was perceived to be invincible. But we can see now that he is not. We can say the same thing with Sara. She may not be that powerful. When her father’s influence weakens, then that goes with her.
Al Jazeera: What sort of role would you play in an ICC investigation?
Leila de Lima: Both advisory and proactive. It depends on what the ICC needs from me.
Al Jazeera: Last week, a group of families of drug war victims released a statement through their attorneys, saying: “We would not have needed the ICC had the Philippine government squarely addressed the war on drugs. But it did not, and has not.” Indeed, since Marcos took power in June 2022, there have been no convictions in what could be up to 30,000 deaths.
Leila de Lima: There’s no argument that the justice system is working. We have been investigating already, but it’s very deficient. The ICC is willing and very much capable of doing these investigations. And nothing was happening insofar as the higher echelons of those responsible for the killings, no government or domestic authority was investigating Duterte and Senator Ronald dela Rosa [previously Duterte’s police chief and top enforcer of the war on drugs].
The families of the drug war victims have every reason to complain and be frustrated about it all.
Al Jazeera: Should Marcos have ordered investigations into the drug war upon taking power?
Leila de Lima: Yes, that is the ideal situation. That is what we were expecting when the new administration came in. But as I said, more than one year, and there’s only an investigation into low-level perpetrators. We have not seen anything more than that.
So it would be too late now. The ICC is at a further stage of its investigation. So [deferring to the ICC] is reasonable, it’s practical, and it’s keeping with the dictates of justice and accountability.
The problem is just how soon the ICC investigation can move and result in a concrete development, like the issuance of a warrant of arrest. That would make people believe the ICC is serious, and that its investigation is something we can look forward to.
Al Jazeera: To you, would the prosecution of Duterte by the ICC feel like the beginning of a healing process?
Leila de Lima: He has to be made accountable for what he did to me. I’m not a vindictive person; it’s not for vengefulness. It’s a matter of justice. I’m a victim of gross injustice.
I need to be fully vindicated. I need people to know the truth about my innocence. I need people to know how and what he has done to me. So full vindication is what I’m after.