Leila de Lima: The seven-year pattern

She was to me no mere subject or issue; she was a moral advocacy

Leila de Lima
At Edsa Shrine celebration, a newly freed Leila de Lima recognizes the author and gives him hug. (Contributed photo)

As I approached, she raised her pointer finger in an unspoken But of course it’s you, and momentarily her arms were around me.

Leila de Lima had just been out two weeks, on bail. She was attending a Thanksgiving Mass, celebrated on Nov. 24 at the EDSA Shrine, for her freedom.

“I didn’t quite make it, but perhaps the number could be rounded off,” she whispered to me.

She was alluding to a piece I had written noting that soon she would mark her seventh year of detention and that that would put her in a unique category with the two other celebrated prisoners held about as long. She fell short by three months.

After all the desperate hoping that had gone unrewarded, that magic number, 7, had raised, at least for me, the most reasonably optimistic scenario for Leila. In fact, I felt so sanguine about it I planted myself, with my wife, in the courthouse’s immediate vicinity, the closest place open to kibitzers, the day her motion for bail came up for reconsideration.

Out at last as president, Rodrigo Duterte, her persecutor, was no longer in a position to hold sway over the power centers he had managed to co-opt into his vengeful plot against her — as head of the Human Rights Commission, she had gone after him for death-squad killings in Davao City when he was the mayor there. Correlatively, his successor, Ferdinand Marcos Jr., himself deeply compromised for his own father’s reign of torture, murder, and plunder (1972-1986), could make himself look good if he made Leila’s only righteous release from jail happen during his presidency.

It might have been the case with his father as well when he allowed his arch rival, Benigno Aquino Jr., to walk free and go into exile in the United States with his family. But doing so only because Aquino had become a potentially fateful liability took away whatever sense of virtue Ferdinand Sr. might have wanted attached to his gesture. In fact, he couldn’t wait to get Aquino off his hands, the life-and-death coronary case that he had become.

Anyway, Ferdinand Sr. did it, ending Aquino’s seven-year incarceration. That four years later he came home from exile, his heart fully repaired, straight to his martyrdom is surely not something we want to go into in relation to Leila.

Our second seven-year inmate was intelligence naval officer Antonio Trillanes IV. He went in for mutiny, in 2003. He doesn’t seem to have any regrets having gone to such lengths in calling out the leadership of the armed forces for corruption and other wrongdoings. Indeed, in a sort of validation, he won a senatorial seat campaigning from jail, and, as a free man, would go on to win re-elections — President Benigno Aquino III, the martyr’s son, granted him amnesty before the military court trying him could come to a verdict.

Trillanes has been, to me, strictly a news subject. If any closeness has developed between us, I can only thank his ever-ready accessibility. Ninoy, on the other hand, was an altogether unreachable subject. Martial law had everything to do with it; it killed my profession — and living.

I last spoke with Ninoy in 1971. He had barricaded himself in a suite at the Hotel Intercontinental (itself now gone) after Marcos had suspended the writ of habeas corpus following a grenade attack at a rally in Plaza Miranda, Manila’s storied political square. I had sought Ninoy out for an interview, and found him soft-pedaling on Marcos, wishing the worst away. The next time I wrote about him he had been murdered, and I did manage to keep the deep pain and outrage I felt out of my story.

Here was a victim so helpless of a persecution so vicious as I had never seen

With Leila there was no concealing anything. I wrote reams about her, wrote in the fashion of storming the heavens, for here was a victim so helpless of a persecution so vicious as I had never seen. The difference between her and Aquino is that she was somehow at least occasionally reachable.

Leila de Lima was to me no mere subject or issue; she was a moral advocacy. And me — I made myself a champion of hers, whether she or anyone else approved of it or not. In fact, I found it rather easy to feel personal about the whole thing — no, it felt natural. And Duterte and his police, congressional, and court lapdogs and herd of false witnesses — the whole mocking parade — did it for me.

Now, you should be able to imagine how that embrace felt.

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