MANILA, Philippines – It was the day she had expected and the “vindication” her opponents have longed for.
Senator Leila de Lima, the fiercest critic of President Rodrigo Duterte, was detained in Camp Crame on Friday, February 24 for illegal drug charges she claimed were fabricated.
With a marathon congressional hearing solely against her, the arrest order came as no surprise to De Lima and her allies. But when the day came, they were still caught flat-footed.
De Lima’s previous posts as Commission on Human Rights chair under the Arroyo administration and justice secretary under the Aquino government proved to be her kryptonite, as her acts then continued to haunt her all the way to the Senate.
For De Lima and her allies, it was clearly an act of political persecution against the senator, who first called out Duterte’s alleged involvement in the Davao Death Squad in 2009.
But it was a welcome development for those who call themselves “victims” of De Lima, the foot soldier of then president Benigno Aquino III.
De Lima maintained the Sandiganbayan and not the regular courts have jurisdiction on the alleged violations she did as a public official and as DOJ secretary.
It didn’t help De Lima that just weeks and months after Duterte’s victory, many politicians expectedly jumped ship to the President’s side.
This included former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who was the first high-profile prisoner under the Aquino administration. De Lima stood out as the lone voice in a sea of silence. Her close association with Aquino and the then powerful Liberal Party hurt her as much as it helped propel her to power.
It was De Lima in November 2011 who blocked Arroyo’s departure from the Philippines despite a temporary restraining order from the Supreme Court then filled with Arroyo appointees. It put the Aquino against the SC early in his term.
Like with De Lima, despite being a public official during the time of alleged violation, the case against Arroyo was filed at the Pasay Regional Trial Court Branch 112.
The court then immediately issued a warrant of arrest against Arroyo, who was detained at St. Lukes Hospital due to a lingering back illness.
Back then, the DOJ secretary maintained there was nothing “unusual” and out of ordinary when a court issues an arrest warrant immediately – a statement that would haunt her nearly 6 years after.
“Hindi po yan unusual in fact, well as I know it, as a previous practitioner, ang general rule is that nakakakuha talaga ng warrant of arrest kaagad din after the filing of information. Nothing unusual, extraordinary if on the same day that a criminal information is filed, ay nag-iissue rin agad ang judge ng warrant of arrest,” she said in a Malacañang press briefing in 2011.
With De Lima’s case, the 3 drug charges filed against her were raffled on February 20. Three days after, the court issued an arrest warrant.
As early as August 2016, when De Lima became the target of Duterte, former first gentleman Mike Arroyo insinuated that De Lima got a taste of her own medicine. (READ: Mike Arroyo to De Lima: How does karma feel?)
"Senator de Lima complained that what President Duterte did to her was 'very foul.' How about when you violated [Arroyo's] human rights by not allowing her to leave? You willfully disobeyed the SC TRO. Wasn't that 'very foul' also?" the former first gentleman wrote on Facebook. The post has since been deleted or made private.
If Janet Lim-Napoles is the alleged mastermind of the Priority Development Assistance Fund or pork barrel, De Lima could be considered the queen hunter of politicians who supposedly misused their PDAF.
She led the filing of charges against senators, congressmen, and even local officials – an act that would prove etched in the minds of these politicians years after.
De Lima was pivotal in the imprisonment of former senators Juan Ponce Enrile, Jinggoy Estrada, and Bong Revilla. Enrile was released on bail for “humanitarian" reasons while Estrada and Revilla are still jailed in the Philippine National Police Custodial Center, where De Lima is detained.
Ironic as it may be, De Lima was earlier told to choose between the former detention cells of Enrile or communist leaders Benito and Wilma Tiamzon. Both Enrile and the Tiamzons were arrested and imprisoned under Aquino, when De Lima was justice secretary.
Estrada and Revilla, in their Facebook accounts, turned the table against De Lima, saying she now knows what their family went through before. (READ: Pork barrel 'queen' parties with solons)
In August 2016, Enrile’s daughter Katrina Ponce-Enrile also hit back at the senator for “shaming” her father.
But unlike the convicts’ testimonies that were used as basis for the drug charges against the senator, the DOJ then was able to submit evidence such as bank documents, Statements of Assets, Liabilities and Networth (SALN), Commission on Audit reports, and endorsements of non-government organizations allegedly linked to Napoles.
The Aquino government, however, was accused of being selective and railroading the plunder charges against the 3 senators not allied with the Liberal Party. The popular actors Revilla and Estrada, at the time, have expressed interest in running for higher office.
De Lima’s investigations involving politicians’ pork barrel has also made her distant from some colleagues in the Senate. Some of the senators she implicated in the controversy are Senators Gregorio Honasan and Joel Villanueva. She also investigated Senator Nancy Binay's father, former vice president Jejomar Binay, over corruption allegations.
Aside from LP members and Senator Antonio Trillanes IV, another strong critic of Duterte, De Lima has no other formidable ally in the 24-man chamber.
But for De Lima, her arrest is not a case of “karma:" Why would it be called as such when the Aquino administration “never engaged” in acts of persecution, she said.
“I really don't know what they mean. If what they are saying is that well, I because I have sent to jail some high profile personalities in my capacity as Secretary of Justice for example the former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo - but I was just doing my job and the cases we filed were on the basis of the findings that there are enough evidence,” De Lima said in an interview before her detention.
“And more importantly, I was never engaged in acts of persecution. The PNoy administration never engaged in any act of harassment or act of persecution against any perceived political foe or political opponent unlike what they did to me or what they are doing to me,” she claimed.
But for the 3 senators and other critics, this is farthest from the truth.
From June 30, when Duterte took office, to the days leading to her arrest, De Lima was the persona of both defiance and acceptance – defiance of the status quo and acceptance of her fate.
Just weeks into Duterte's presidency, De Lima already sought a Senate investigation into the Davao Death Squad.
Duterte immediately hit back, publicizing the senator’s “immoral” love affair with her former driver and bodyguard. He also first floated the accusation that De Lima had a hand in the proliferation of illegal drugs in the national penitentiary.
It was the first time the feisty senator was teary-eyed in public, caught off-guard by the President’s scathing personal remarks.
But De Lima, a high-profile lawyer before entering politics, stopped at nothing to “unmask” and attack Duterte.
Despite continuous tirades, De Lima brought the first witness out against Duterte, self-confessed assassin Edgar Matobato, who claimed to be part of the so-called DDS.
What followed was a suit of charges against her, seemingly covering all bases – numerous Senate ethics complaints, marathon House inquiries where her personal life was made public and where convicts were used to testify against her, Ombudsman complaints, and drug trafficking charges.
Midway through the ordeal, De Lima would show passion and anger in press conferences now and then – which her critics used against her. At one point, following criticisms on social media, she apologized for her "outburst" from a Senate probe.
But a few weeks before her arrest, De Lima has appeared to have psychologically prepared not just herself, but her staff and family.
She said she does not want to leave her family clueless and unprepared on how to deal with the situation.
De Lima told her staff not to cry or, if and when they do, to hide it from her, and proceeded to give other instructions.
At one time, when women supporters visited her office on February 14 and told her they would join her in prison, De Lima even made a joke about it: "'Wag nyo naman akong samahan sa loob ng kulungan, sa presinto na lang po." (Don't accompany me inside jail, just go inside the precinct.)
The senator, as she is known for, has also been active in Senate hearings and debates – even until the last hours before the arrest warrant against her was issued.
In an apparent sign of sorts, two of her former and present critics have been kind to her on her last working day, Thursday, February 23, during the Senate hearing into the death of Korean businessman Jee Ick Joo.
Senator Panfilo Lacson, who De Lima hunted down in 2011, lauded De Lima’s questions and said in jest: “Don’t get jailed. We will miss you," prompting a laughter from the lady senator.
In an unusual break from their word war, Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II, who led the filing of charges against her, expressed his agreement with De Lima’s views at least twice that day.
In De Lima’s words, she was “ready” for her fate, citing the President’s words that he would make sure De Lima would be jailed. The senator even had a pre-recorded video statement on her arrest.
Even in her last interview with the media before she went out of the Senate to go to Camp Crame, De Lima stood defiant against Duterte, insisting her fight is not yet over.