De Lima thankful, emotional on 1st birthday in jail: 'No regrets'

MANILA, Philippines – Senator Leila de Lima was emotional as she celebrated her first birthday in jail with family, friends, and colleagues on Sunday, August 27.

It was a "festive" celebration, with the 58-year-old De Lima in "high spirits," according to opposition Senator Antonio Trillanes IV, who attended the event at the Philippine National Police (PNP) Custodial Center in Camp Crame.

Fhillip Sawali, De Lima's chief of staff, described the celebration as "very meaningful." Around 90 people were present, including the senator's sons Israel and Vincent, two grandchildren, 3 siblings, and other relatives. (LOOK: De Lima's handwritten letter to her family)

"She was very emotional. She said she misses the simple things outside but she thinks God has a place for her," Sawali told Rappler.

During the gathering, De Lima expressed gratitude for her life, saying she has no regrets even after spending 187 days, and counting, in jail. The senator has been detained over drug charges, which she claims were fabricated by President Rodrigo Duterte and his allies.

"I am thankful for my life, for a wonderful 58 years. Yes, marami akong 'di nagagawa (I am unable to do many things) but this is such a wonderful life. No regrets. I was hoping this is my first and last birthday [in detention]," De Lima said.

"I want to thank the Lord for keeping me alive, for keeping me strong, for keeping my sanity intact, for making me whole, and still whole," she added.

Even in another lifetime, the opposition senator said she would not have it any other way as she wants to continue fighting for human rights. 

If last year her wishes included a lovelife and a "ceasefire" with the President, now the senator has one wish – an end to the killings in the country.

In fact, she has thought of what she would say if and when she sees Duterte, her archenemy.

"I'm trying to imagine an encounter with [him] to try to make a bargain. Mr President, you can lock me in jail for as long as you want but please, just stop the killings," said an emotional De Lima, who served as former chairperson of the Commission on Human Rights (CHR).


A mass was held outside De Lima's detention center, officiated by Lingayen-Dagupan Archbishop Socrates Villegas, outgoing president of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines. Also present were priests Robert Reyes, Hector Cañon, Flavie Villanueva, and Albert Alejo.

In his homily, Villegas thanked De Lima for "inspiring and challenging" the people.

"From the outside, you inspire us. From the outside, you touch us. From the outside, you challenge us. And from where we are, you teach us how to love God and His people," Villegas said.

Alejo, for his part, recalled De Lima's birthday last year by reading an entry from his personal journal.

Alejo shared it was August 27, 2016 when he finally got in touch with De Lima to ask if they could meet for "a very sensitive and urgent matter."

For him, it was a "grace-filled moment" because it paved the way for the meeting between De Lima and Edgar Matobato, a self-confessed hitman of the Davao Death Squad who testifed before the Senate.

Matobato was the first witness to openly accuse Duterte of masterminding killings in Davao City when he was mayor.

Well wishes

De Lima's former colleagues in the Aquino Cabinet were also present to celebrate her birthday. The senator's staff said former president Benigno Aquino III was supposed to attend but got sick.

The senator's aunt, Lilia de Lima, the former director general of the Philippine Economic Zone Authority (PEZA), was there as well.

In a message sent to Rappler, the elder De Lima had nothing but good wishes for her niece.

"Take heart. The righteous will always triumph before the wrongs," the former PEZA chief said.

Former social welfare secretary Corazon Soliman wished strength for her friend.

"Keep the faith. Keep strong. Thank you for standing up for the voiceless. We will continue to organize so that many voices will be heard to get you out of this place," Soliman said.

Also present were former budget chief Florencio Abad and daughter Julia Abad, former presidential peace adviser Teresita Deles, former education secretary Bro Armin Luistro, and former tourism secretary Ramon Jimenez.

Albay 1st District Representative Edcel Lagman, former Akbayan representative Ibarra Gutierrez, and former Civil Service Commission chairperson Karina David were also there.

Election lawyer Romulo Macalintal, former Commission on Elections (Comelec) chairpersons Sixto Brillantes Jr and Christian Monsod, as well as Monsod's wife, economist and columnist Solita Monsod, joined the celebration too. –

Camille Elemia

Camille Elemia is Rappler's lead reporter for media, disinformation, and democracy. She won an ILO award in 2017. She received the prestigious Fulbright-Hubert Humphrey fellowship in 2019, allowing her to further study media and politics in the US. Email