MANILA, Philippines – Unexpected, unimaginable, extraordinary – that’s how opposition Senator Leila de Lima and her family described the rollercoaster year that saw the once powerful justice secretary land in jail.
It was on February 24 when De Lima surrendered to the Philippine National Police over drug charges filed against her by the Department of Justice (DOJ). The Supreme Court has since ruled against her, legitimizing her arrest.
To this day, De Lima maintains these are fabricated cases against her and that they were a way for President Rodrigo Duterte to get back at her for investigating the Davao Death Squad. (READ: De Lima in jail: 'I never imagined Duterte would be this vindictive')
“Most trying time yet most interesting. Never thought this would happen at the height of my public career, to be locked up in jail,” De Lima told Rappler in a letter.
With her imprisonment came the changes in her family’s life – both big and small. Her ailing mother still has no clear idea where her daughter is.
Vicente, brother of the senator, said De Lima’s detention came at a rather bittersweet time in their lives. Their 87-year-old mother has dementia so she would not really look for her daughter every day. The senator, however, could not spend time with her only living parent.
This reality does not escape De Lima’s eldest son Israel, who is a special child. Israel, 35, whom Rappler met several times, is a sweet and innocent man, always visiting his mother, whom he calls “Leila de Lima.”
De Lima’s other son Vincent is a law student and a father of two. The senator said she has repeatedly asked him if he is being ostracized in school because of her.
“Maybe ayaw niya ako mag-worry, so sinasabi niya na 'No, hindi naman' (Maybe he does not want me to worry, so he says, 'No, not really'),” De Lima said.
The family has spent every Sunday of the past months in the Custodial Center in Camp Crame. Together with friends, relatives, and supporters, they hear Mass in what they jokingly refer to as “Parokya ni Leila".
For the senator, her imprisonment has served as a “wake-up call".
“They say my marriage didn’t work out because I prioritize my career. But now, I am closer to my family. Before, I was always in a hurry, time was the enemy. I rarely attended family events. This is a wake-up call sa mga pagkukulang ko sa kanila (to all my shortcomings to them),” De Lima said.
“I long for vindication not necessarily for myself but for my family. I know they’re just quiet but I know they’re also affected,” she added.
Known to be a workaholic, De Lima is now forced to slow down. Things she practically ignored before have now become a part of her in jail.
She told Rappler she kept on hearing about Game of Thrones from her staff but never got the chance to see it or read it. But now, with all the time on her hands, the senator said she has already read Book 1.
In fact, she said her favorite characters are Bran, Arya, Daenerys, and Jon Snow. And yes, she dislikes Sansa and Cersei.
De Lima and her 3 other siblings grew up in Iriga City in Camarines Sur. The senator’s family and relatives maintain a low profile.
In fact, she is the only politician in the family. Other family members – her late father and former Commission on Elections commissioner Vicente de Lima and her aunt, Ramon Magsaysay Awardee and former head of the Philippine Economic Zone Authority Lilia de Lima – are civil servants.
Her sister Caroline and brother Vicente have nothing but good words for their sister, who they claim, never brought any member of the family on any of her official trips abroad.
Vicente told Rappler how De Lima informed them of her impending arrest, weeks before it happened. He said unlike other high-profile detainees, his sister did not have any dramatics – no hospitalization, no escaping the country.
“Walang (No use of) wheelchair, no talk of trying to escape. She could have applied for political asylum but instead she said, ‘I would face this.’ My sister will have her redemption,” Vicente said.
De Lima’s sister Caroline said the family is “hoping for the best and ready for the worst.”
“I wish her inner strength. She’s on the side of good,” Caroline told Rappler.
“Stay the course. You are on the right side,” Vicente said.
First Christmas in jail
It would be the first year De Lima would spend Christmas and New Year away from her family and inside jail. But for her, some traditions have to continue.
Photo from De Lima family
It’s a family tradition to celebrate Christmas by giving gifts to indigenous peoples in the province – a practice that was started by their late father.
De Lima’s sister Caroline and son Vincent are set to go to Iriga City to do that.
Israel has expressed unwillingness to go to the province because, Caroline said, he does not want to be away from his mom on Christmas.
Vicente and his family, meanwhile, would likely stay in Manila to be with the senator.
But even that is still not final, as – ironic as it seems – Christmas falls on a Monday when no visitors are allowed. The family is keen on appealing the rule but as of posting, no definite decision has been made.
“It’s very lonely. Mixed feelings because of the spirit of Christmas and yet I’m here away from my family,” she said.
Photo from De Lima family
On Sunday, Christmas Eve, a mass would be held in her quarters, with family and friends expected to attend. But come late afternoon, the people need to go, leaving the senator alone, with her stray cat friends, to welcome December 25.
Aside from her family, De Lima also relies on one sector for support, the same group considered an enemy by President Rodrigo Duterte – the international community, specifically human rights groups.
De Lima has won several awards for her fight for human rights, which she and her family consider a silver lining in an otherwise gloomy year.
The senator and her family value this very much. De Lima said that if not for the international support, she believes her situation could have been worse. For her, it’s her “protection".
“It’s a big protection, that is clear. Without it, my situation could have been more unreasonable. That means a lot to me. Imagine if there were no such things, I’d be more vulnerable to more attacks,” the senator said.
“We’re very proud that international groups continue to believe in her. It’s quite ironic that people here in the country are not like that,” Vicente said.
With the growing sound of dissent from these groups toward Duterte, it has been increasingly difficult for human rights advocates and foreigners to visit the senator.
Groups expressing solidarity with De Lima have also received scathing comments from no less than the President.
According to the senator, there have been at least 4 instances when foreign lawmakers and supporters were barred from entering the detention center despite complying with the 10-day rule of the Philippine National Police.
Despite the struggles in almost all aspects of her life now, De Lima maintains she has no regrets in going against the President.
“I have no regrets that I went against the tide too early, as they say, too premature, too risky. I would be less forgiving to myself if I kept silent all along,” she said.
And then there is the reality incessantly knocking on her door. She recently lost the vote in the Supreme Court. The senator admitted it would be an uphill battle in the High Court as she called it a “numbers game.”
“I’m hopeful but not that confident.” – Rappler.com
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 firstname.lastname@example.org