Leila de Lima is sitting at a square table sharing a meal with some of her political allies in a meeting room in a Manila hotel. Two young male aides stand guard outside the room; they ask that her hotel not be named. “This is my life now,” says De Lima, a human rights advocate and member of the Philippine Senate. “It’s become a nightmare, but I’m getting used to it.”
Since 20 September, when her address and cellphone number were read out at a congressional hearing, De Lima, 57, has moved between the homes of friends and relatives. She has received death threats and is now too afraid to spend the night at her own house, where she lives alone. “I sneak home occasionally to see my dogs,” she says.
A former head of the national Commission on Human Rights and justice secretary in the previous administration, De Lima took a new role in August that has made her a target: She has become possibly the country’s most outspoken – and high-ranking – critic of President Rodrigo Duterte’s ruthless campaign against drug dealers and users.
“Duterte wants to make an example of me so that nobody will speak out and oppose him,” says De Lima, her tone switching between anger and exasperation. “This is a man who abhors dissent and muzzles all around him.”
Since Duterte assumed office on 30 June, he has followed through on his pledge to pursue a war on drugs. In his first 100 days, roughly 3,400 Filipinos were shot dead in police operations or vigilante-style executions. The crackdown has sparked outrage overseas: politicians and officials in the US, the United Nations and Europe have all slammed the Philippine leader. Duterte has reacted furiously, telling President Barack Obama that he could “go to hell” and threatening to end long-standing military ties to Washington, while proposing new trade alliances, long-term land leases and even weapons deals with Beijing and Moscow.
In the Philippines, most critics are too intimidated to speak up – in part because Duterte’s crackdown has sent his popularity ratings soaring to 76 per cent, according to a recent poll. De Lima first publicly stood up to Duterte in August, when, as the chair of the Senate justice committee, she launched hearings into the surge of killings. The inquiry prompted Duterte to describe her as “immoral” and an “adulterer”. He also suggested she should hang herself.
In September, the conflict between Duterte and De Lima intensified when a self-professed hitman named Edgar Matobato testified at the hearings, claiming that death squads had killed drug users on Duterte’s orders during the President’s stint as mayor of Davao City. Matobato also said Duterte had shot dead a federal investigator with a machine gun. The President and police chiefs denied the claims, and apparent inconsistencies in Matobato’s account were uncovered in his cross-examination.
After Matobato’s testimony, De Lima faced an increase in attacks from Duterte’s supporters. Political allies, led by Manny Pacquiao, the boxing superstar who became a senator in May, ousted her as committee chair. Around the same time, she started receiving death threats. And in late September, Duterte loyalists in the country’s lower legislative house, the House of Representatives, threatened to screen a sex tape purportedly featuring De Lima (who has been divorced since 2007) with her married chauffeur.
The pro-Duterte lawmakers alleged that the driver was also her “bagman” who collected payoffs for her from jailed drug lords in return for permitting them to continue their illegal trade while she was justice secretary. The video would purportedly help establish how close she was to the driver, they argued.
“De Lima is not only screwing her driver; she is also screwing the nation,” Duterte said on 22 September in remarks at the opening ceremony of a power plant, adding that she has a “propensity for sex”. The President has also said he loses his appetite every time he views the purported sex tape. He has not explained why he has watched it more than once.
De Lima says she does not know if she is featured in the sex tape, if it exists. She acknowledges previously having a relationship with the driver but insists that is a private matter, irrelevant to bribery claims that she denies.
“Duterte is trying to destroy me at any cost in the hope that it will break my spirit, destroy my credibility and end my crusade to expose the truth about his presidency,” De Lima told Newsweek. “It’s so ridiculous and surreal to find myself talking about a sex tape and completely false drug allegations.”
The lawmakers have recently backed away from their plan to show the tape, and some started to express doubts about that it featured her. But by using the allegations to attack De Lima, Duterte has risked alienating some potentially important voters: women.
On 4 October, the Senate passed a resolution filed by female senators from different parties denouncing Duterte’s supporters’ plan to show the alleged sex tape in the House of Representatives, calling it a form of “slut-shaming”. The hashtag #EveryWoman trended on Twitter and Facebook as female posters repeatedly wrote: “I would like to testify in Congress. It was me in the sex video”.
“The way she has been treated by Duterte is typical of how women in the Philippines are so often treated by men,” says Jozy Acosta-Nisperos, founder of anti-Duterte Facebook group the Silent Majority. “But he’s taking on the wrong woman. She won’t back down.”
Duterte has made inappropriate and hostile remarks about women in the past: He joked about the rape of a murdered Australian missionary on the campaign trail – a remark widely condemned outside the Philippines but largely brushed off inside the country as “Duterte being Duterte”.
Even though they acknowledge his overt sexism, some female critics say Duterte has introduced measures that have helped women. Katrina Stuart Santiago, a media columnist who blogs as “Radikal Chick,” notes that he introduced anti-discrimination statutes in Davao and says women there do not experience the same levels of street harassment as they do in other cities.
Some feminist groups have also praised his appointment of women to senior positions in government; few spoke up in De Lima’s defence until talk of the sex tape began. Although two of the six presidents since the overthrow of Ferdinand Marcos in 1986 have been female, women’s issues are typically low on the political agenda. “There is no real large-scale women’s movement in this country,” says Santiago. “Mainstream media is not one to talk about feminism or women’s issues, and there’s no real woman’s vote in this country.”
De Lima knows the risks of continuing to criticise Duterte. But even without the widespread support of women in the Philippines, she feels compelled to continue her campaign. “As a human rights advocate, I’m so shocked by the targeting of the poor, defenceless, small-time pushers who sell drugs to feed their addiction,” she says. “He mentions big names but only goes after the weak and vulnerable. What sort of war is that?”
For now, Duterte appears supremely confident; many perceive him as something of a second Marcos, the late dictator. But in a country with such a volatile political history, even strongmen like Marcos – who fled to Hawaii in 1986 after the mass protests of the “People Power revolution” – can find themselves suddenly stripped of power.
De Lima is determined not to back down in her confrontation with the President. “The more they attack me, the more they embolden me,” she says. “If Duterte thinks he can break my spirit, he is dead wrong.”
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