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Leila de Lima: How I Survived 2,454 Days in Arbitrary Detention

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Leila de Lima: How I Survived 2,454 Days in Arbitrary Detention
Courtesy of Rappler

Published by Amnesty International in March 20, 2024

By Leila de Lima, Human Rights Defender

Leila de Lima was jailed under former President Rodrigo Duterte, who led the so-called “war on drugs” that has killed thousands in the Philippines. A Senator at the time, Leila was one of Duterte’s most prominent critics before bogus charges were brought against her using witness testimony that was later retracted in a process that took nearly seven years. 

After all that time in arbitrary detention, that included being held hostage by an inmate at knifepoint, former Philippine senator and prisoner of conscience Leila de Lima was finally granted temporary freedom in November 2023. But one charge remains.

Here, Leila speaks to Amnesty International about her harrowing ordeal in detention, what helped her get through it and what she plans to do next. The answers have been edited for length and clarity. 

Since day one of my release, I’ve been extremely busy. I had to go to a safehouse, upon advice of my friends. I was allowed to see several of my close friends. As I could not check in with my family in person, I had to call them.  

I stayed a few days in that safehouse before I went home to our province… it was a very emotional reunion. My [91-year-old] mom never knew that I was in jail. What my siblings told her was just that I was on a study leave in the US.  

A lot of people came to our house to visit me. Some of them were very emotional. Whenever I meet people in public places, even if they’re total strangers, some of them would be crying and saying, “We prayed for you, Senator Leila. We’re so happy that you’re free at last.” 

“My cats kept my sanity intact”

I was detained for almost seven years – six years, eight months and 21 days to be exact or a total of 2,454 days. I had to develop a strict daily routine to keep myself busy. The first few days, I was so restless with feelings of disbelief and indignation. But eventually I was able to adjust.  

From 4:30am when I woke up, I would start praying and reading the Bible and doing some writing. I had no cell phone, no Internet access, no laptop or any other electronic gadget, no aircon, no shower. I was allowed to have a microwave oven because I had no private kitchen or stove and since my food came from my house, I needed a way to reheat it.  

I adopted almost 20 stray cats who kept on coming to my quarters. Five of those were my favourites and these are the ones I brought home upon my release. These cats were so helpful with me coping with my life in detention. They were so important to me because they kept my sanity intact. They made me happy in spite of the solitude, the feeling of being so alone. 

Traumatic hostage-taking

I was praying the rosary when I was taken hostage on 9 October, 2022. It was part of my routine, between 6:20 and 6:30 am. I was midway through my rosary when somebody just barged into my room, one of the three detainees who were attempting to escape. The two were earlier gunned down, I didn’t know that there was already something happening outside. 

One of them was able to escape the sniper so he got to my room and took me as hostage with an improvised knife constantly being pressed on my chest. I was blindfolded, my hands and feet were tied. When his demands were not being met, he told me, “It’s time. I will kill you and then I’ll kill myself.”   

I was blindfolded the whole time, then all of a sudden there were shots, close-range shots, three or four shots. I never saw the hostage-taker fall because I was immediately taken out of my room.

It was very traumatic, very harrowing. I thought it was my end. Even if I was truly scared, I had to show to the hostage-taker that I was not.

It was very traumatic, very harrowing. I thought it was my end. Even if I was truly scared, I had to show to the hostage-taker that I was not. When he was asking for my cell phone, I told him, “I have no cell phone, that’s prohibited, you know that.” I was trying to fight off fear. Because if it’s the other way around, if you’re overwhelmed with fear, then you won’t be able to think straight. That’s my whole attitude.  

Detention during the pandemic

Before the pandemic, I received regular visits.  

But then when the pandemic struck, there was a total lockdown for several months. Even when the lockdown was lifted, there was still limited visits allowed. They imposed more restrictions. Visitors became infrequent because of additional requirements like seeking court permission. Until my release on 13 November 2023, visitations were limited.  

I was blessed and fortunate that the whole world was watching. Otherwise, it would have been more difficult for me. The authorities knew that the world was watching. A lot of organizations like Amnesty International and members of parliament were closely monitoring my case and issuing statements calling for my immediate freedom. It meant a lot.  

Fortunately, the custodial guards treated me fairly well, with respect, with courtesy and professionalism, with distance of course. 

Solitude as blessing 

From Leila de Lima's Facebook page

It was a difficult experience, mentally, physically and emotionally, especially [because] I’m innocent. I had to cope with the circumstances. The other option was to surrender. I was just fighting for the rights of those victimized by the drug war, for justice. I needed to survive because I don’t want to give my oppressors and persecutors the satisfaction of seeing me broken or destroyed.  

There were blessings because of the solitude. Solitude brings out a lot of things in you, makes you realize a lot of things. You miss your loved ones, missed milestones, missed opportunities, especially when friends or relatives or family would pass away. I could not even visit their wake.  

I realized the beauty of small blessings in life. Whenever it’s raining, I would be in the door of my quarters and just stare at the rain. And then the birds, when they come in the morning, I would feed them. I never did those things before. My focus was on something else. These are blessings, moments of epiphany.  

I realized the beauty of small blessings in life.

It was difficult, but it was all worth it. I have no regrets whatsoever. I persevered in fighting for the rights of others. I realized that worthy things are never easy to achieve. But I dared oppose those wrongful deaths, those wrongful policies of the past administration. You can never go wrong when it comes to human rights and upholding human dignity.  

Victim of injustice

I will be suing those behind my detention. They must face their day of reckoning for what they did to me. They knew that all those accusations are false, made-up and plain fabrications, but they pursued them, filing those three drug cases. I could not just let it pass. It’s not a matter of revenge. It’s a matter of justice. I was a clear victim of injustice.  

Their whole idea is to silence me, to destroy me. The whole state apparatus went after me on orders of Mr Duterte. All of this was orchestrated to satisfy the pleasure of a vindictive president.  

What’s next for Leila?

I intend to pursue my core advocacies – human rights and social justice, democracy and rule of law. I am closely monitoring the developments in the ICC [International Criminal Court] investigation of the drug war killings.  

There’s still more to do. There are still reports of killings but fewer in number. I want President Marcos Jr. to make an explicit, categorical and public announcement telling those responsible, whether state actors or not – to stop it. We have not heard it from him. What can be more powerful than getting it from the President himself saying, “Just stop the killings”? 

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