“I remain unconquered.”

I am now into my fifth year in detention for trumped-up and politically motivated charges. I remain without access to the Internet or any gadgets for work or personal use. Even joining Senate deliberations via teleconferencing is denied to me. All digital platforms where I can personally appear and fulfil my mandate are also denied. I am allowed only paper and pen. During the first months of the pandemic, I was by all indications subjected to incommunicado detention, a situation in which I was denied access to the outside world. I am constantly under watchful eyes and monitoring beyond what is necessary. Up to this day, visitors have been rare and limited, due to strict regulations related to the pandemic. The overall plan is (and has always been) to thrust me into oblivion, with blemished name and handicapped by restrictions, and silence my voice after daring to call out President Duterte’s crimes against humanity in his deadly drug war, and now the red-tagging of civilians.

By Zunar for this year’s HUMAN RIGHTS IN ASEAN - The Cartoonists Perspective Exhibition

Anybody who has personal convictions and voices out his/her dissent is not safe under a dictatorial regime. But regardless of circumstances, dissent in the face of dictatorship and calling out the abuses committed by it have always been the right and just thing to do. I know my causes well and I will use all my tools to survive this persecution. If the pen is the only thing I am allowed, my pen shall never dry out for this struggle.

I shall never toe the line of compromise on human rights. The legal cases against me, fabricated and founded on lies, are proceeding at a snail’s pace. To protect myself from this unforgiving circumstance, I learned to hope for the best but prepare for the worst and just set my mind and strength to my daily work, focused in large part on fulfilling my mandate as a Senator. By doing this, not only can I prevent myself from ruminating on the dark terrains of doubts and fears about my situation but also show to my persecutors that I remain unconquered.

I keep a daily routine. I rise at 4:30 in the morning and begin my day reading the Scriptures and praying the Holy Rosary. This “me time” gives me a surer footing on where I stand and boosts my spiritual and mental energy to face the day. After this, I face other forms of innocent life, my loyal companions inside detention – my plants and adopted stray cats – the only ones not subjected to visit restrictions and affected by the pandemic. They give me simple joys. Before breakfast, I feed my cats, water my plants and clean my quarters, also as a form of exercise and wellness.

By nine in the morning, the grind of Senate work begins. My staff brings me all the daily briefing reports, newspapers, correspondence, Senate bills and resolutions I must read, and, information on pressing national issues, office activities and events that require my instructions and approval. In return, I issue memos and instructions, make precise notes on the reviewed documents and compose ideas on bills, resolutions and policy directions I want to explore and later craft that require research. I also issue written dispatches on issues that matter to me and affect the public. Some of these dispatches (especially on human rights, corruption and Mr. Duterte’s downright servility to China) earn the ire of the regime and, in retaliation, the latter hits me with another round of lies and brickbats. I also find so much joy in writing birthday greetings, congratulatory messages and if necessary, letters of sympathy to my friends, staff, supporters and loved ones. They are my human, affectionate, and loving connections and sources of my deepest motivation.

On some days of the week, I meet with my lawyers to set our course around my trumped-up cases. In between, I read books, both fiction and non-fiction. They are a source of my creative force. Late afternoon, I meditate and write on my journal. These are my daily and weekly rituals and activities which, taken together, developed further my discipline and patience in detention. I go to bed between ten or eleven in the evening.

Before February 24, 2017, the day I was arrested, I was fighting for the human rights of thousands of poor victims, including innocent children, of Duterte’s drug war. Since the day of my arrest on fabricated charges, I have continued that fight on top of my personal battle to assert and defend my own human rights that today, remain disrespected and outrightly violated. My passion for defending the human rights of the disadvantaged and marginalized Filipinos has not wavered just because I am now myself a victim. I have risen above my persecution. My continuing unjust incarceration has further deepened my understanding of the need to respect, protect and fight for the rights of others.

I now speak from the urgency of my own experience. I have been described as a political prisoner and a prisoner of conscience. A widely accepted definition of a political prisoner is one who is imprisoned for his/her political beliefs or actions, contrary to those of his/her government. Being described as one is not only an honour and privilege but a moral encouragement to continue with the fight for justice, respect for human rights and the rule of law. No fabricated charges, demonization and blatant lies about my person can prevent me from fulfilling this avowed responsibility. Come hell or high waters, I will be true to who I am and my convictions.

Political prisoners all over the world are doubly disadvantaged and marginalized. Often, they are held on trumped-up charges, effectively denying them the basic principle in Article 6 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) which states that: “everyone has the right to recognition as a person before the law.” Other times, they are treated like common criminals, subjected to far worse conditions in detention than the latter. They are discriminated against, particularly by jail authorities and some are tortured and/or subjected to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. They are most vulnerable to violations of their physical integrity and human dignity as persons. If common criminals who are imprisoned for crimes they commit against society enjoy universally accepted standards and treatment as enunciated in the UDHR, the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners and other international treaties, can we not consider political prisoners as a vulnerable group entitled to additional protection by the international human rights system? Perhaps, it is high time that we give this some thought.

Accountability for abuses and violations committed by duty-holders, whether individually or collectively, is the cornerstone of human rights protection and promotion. Victims of human rights violations and their families are entitled to the rights to truth, to justice, to an effective remedy against grievances and abuses and to reparation. The right to an effective remedy carries with it the imposition of sanctions against those who are responsible. Individual sanctions, be they in the form of travel restrictions, denial of visa or freezing of assets, must be effectively implemented and enforced to be considered a successful foreign policy tool. Without effective implementation, enforcement and monitoring, individual sanctions as a foreign policy tool might not work. If it does though, it can be an effective tool in showing the Filipino people that the international community cares and is watching. It can also be a deterrent for and a warning to high-ranking Philippine government officials in avoiding wrongdoings and abuses while in office. Further, if it is effective, it is a useful tool to promote respect for human rights at all levels of government.

Given an opportunity to speak before the international human rights community, the UN Human Rights Council in particular, I will espouse not only for the effective implementation and enforcement of the individual sanctions as a foreign policy tool but also for the creation of an independent and impartial fact-finding investigation by the Council of the human rights situation in the Philippines under the Duterte administration. I share the recommendation of the 14 UN Special Rapporteurs that there really is a need for this investigation. The extrajudicial killings have not stopped and continue unabated, not even during this pandemic. In fact, there is a finding that there was a 210% increase in the number of EJKs for the period April to June 2020, compared with the preceding months of that year. There is also a need for an on-the-ground investigation on how far Duterte and his minions have implemented the latest resolution of the UN Human Rights Council to improve its human rights record.

With or without the pandemic, the time to act and investigate is NOW. We cannot afford to lose more lives. We cannot afford to just watch and wait for the Philippine government to fulfil its obligations. We need the international community to help us pressure this government to do its mandated duty of respecting, promoting and fulfilling the rights and freedoms of its people. Let the perpetrators and their masterminds be made accountable and let the rights of the victims and their families to truth and justice be protected and fulfilled. As members of the human rights community, let our collective voices against abuses and atrocities be heard.

I am Leila M. de Lima, Senator of the Republic of the Philippines and a political prisoner, and I remain unconquered!

1 June 2021 Manila, Philippine


Leila M. de Lima is a politician and human rights activist currently serving as a Senator of the Philippines. Before being appointed as the head of the National Human Rights Commission of the Philippines in 2008, she was a practicing lawyer.