MARY GRACE COSTA WRITES – Strong-armed President Rodrigo Duterte might be fresh out of victory after the Senate voted out major dissenter Leila De Lima, but the ousted former chair of the justice committee warned the president not to rest on his laurels.
On September 19, the Philippine Senate voted Senator Leila De Lima out of her chairmanship of the justice and human rights committee after accusing her of being “biased.” De Lima was appointed Secretary of the Philippines Department of Justice by former president Aquino, and she claims that voting her out of her position was an act of political retribution by the president and his supporters.
Back in late August, De Lima spearheaded an investigation of the extrajudicial killings of suspected drug users and drug dealers in the southern Philippines city of Davao, of which Duterte was mayor for 22 years.
On September 15, De Lima called upon one of her chief witnesses, a self-confessed “executioner” of the vigilante group known as the Davao Death Squad, Edgar Matobato, to testify. In his testimony, Matobato claimed that Duterte was heavily involved in the summary execution of over 1000 suspects, even personally offing a Justice Department agent with an Uzi. Duterte and his crew, as expected, denied everything.
De Lima’s investigation of the extrajudicial murders in Davao had an obvious connection to the president’s most recent nationwide war on drugs. Since his inauguration, Duterte’s controversial anti-drug campaign has claimed over 2,000 victims, the majority of which were reportedly executed by police or vigilantes. Duterte has encouraged such killings, calling upon citizens to aid the police in whatever way they can. He even urged the public to take matters into their own hands: “Do it yourself if you have the gun,” he said.
The rest of the world hasn’t been in the dark in terms of what’s been happening in the Philippines, but the amount of international outrage surrounding Duterte’s drug war has been relatively underwhelming. Leila De Lima – with her staunch efforts to uncover the bloody truth – was one of Duterte’s most outspoken critics. With the rest of the world seemingly silent, De Lima’s departure from the justice department could very well mean that thousands of slain men and women have lost their champion.
On September 21, Leila De Lima delivered a powerful speech addressing the accusations made against her, which included the acceptance of bribes and adultery. But she also gave the president her final thoughts as a member of the Senate.
Near the end of her oration, De Lima cast herself in the role of the Roman slave, riding in a chariot behind a Roman general, fresh from victory and drunk on glory. She tells Duterte: “look behind you, and remember that you are only a man.” In her final words, De Lima warns the president: power fades, but truth and justice will prevail.