Philippines’ Duterte Loses Out to Two Iconic Women

Both have opposed his murderous drug war and defied him

By: Criselda Yabes

The Philippine courts last week defied President Rodrigo Duterte with courtroom victories for two women the president detests, ending contests with him that go back almost to the time he was elected in 2016 and started bending the conception of justice to meet his own ends. The first is Leila de Lima, 61, who has been in “preventive detention” for nearly four years for opposing his murderous anti-drug war, in which death squads and feral police have murdered thousands of mostly poor and powerless drug users. The second is Leni Robredo, 55, who was elected separately as vice president in 2016, who has also opposed his drug war and who Duterte vainly wanted to replace with Ferdinand “Bong Bong” Marcos, the son of the late strongman whose family is believed to have stolen billions of dollars from the Philippines.

Officially, more than 5,100 drug suspects, including at least 50 children, had been killed in the drug war as of January 2019. News organizations and human rights groups claim the death toll is over 12,000. Opposition senators claimed as long ago as 2018 that more than 20,000 have been killed. The International Criminal Court in The Hague would love to get Duterte into the dock after the end of his presidency in 2022 on human rights offense charges, which he has denounced.

On February 17, a trial court seemingly defied Duterte’s wishes and acquitted De Lima in one of three charges accusing her of conspiring to commit drug trading, in response to her lawyer’s plea to dismiss the case because of weak evidence. After four years of imprisonment, she might be close to obtaining her freedom, unless he once again leans on the courts to do his bidding, as he has done in the past. De Lima, referred to by many human rights organizations as a Prisoner of Conscience after Duterte put her into “preventive detention” on what many critics said were trumped-up charges, was taken to the courthouse for the first time during the pandemic wearing a striped long-sleeved and hooded blouse, face mask, and shield.

If the court likewise dismisses the other two cases – which De Lima’s lawyers hope would soon come in succession and likely grant her bail – it would be a vindication of the senator’s claim that accusations leveled against her were fabricated to suit Duterte’s alleged retaliation to punish his enemies. De Lima was one of the most vocal critics of the president’s anti-drug war, a single-minded policy Duterte was obsessed with to replicate what he had done as longtime mayor of Davao City in the south. De Lima was then the human rights commissioner who threatened to investigate Duterte’s alleged death-squad attempts to end crime in the streets.

No sooner had Duterte warmed the Malacañang seat as elected president in 2016 than he moved to make an example of De Lima, who had just been voted in as a senator in the same year after a distinguished career as a human rights advocate and having served as justice secretary in the previous government. One after another, witnesses came forward accusing her of accepting bribes when she was a cabinet secretary from so-called drug lords jailed in the notorious Bilibid Prison outside of Manila. She was also humiliated in Congress over her supposed affair with her driver-cum-bodyguard.

The action was swift in a justice system known for long delays and lack of rigor; and early on then, it became clear that Duterte minced no words when asserting his authoritarian streak and undermining democratic rules. And so, four years ago this month, De Lima’s imprisonment was a major event, showing her being taken to a jailhouse in Camp Crame, the headquarters of the Philippine National Police where past government and military officials had served their sentences.

A newspaper columnist called her “a martyr of Philippine politics,” in a playbook which De Lima said Duterte had made her his “favorite punching bag.” In one of her dispatches from prison, bound in books marking each year of her detention, she depicted the president as a tyrant who uses public resources “to avenge himself for personal slight.” And in a more private touch, she wrote about the stray cats she fed in prison and the heart-tugging visit of her mother who was suffering from dementia. The Supreme Court had rejected her bid seeking protection against the president’s insulting and misogynistic tirades on her private life, saying Duterte was covered by presidential immunity.

Robredo finally official veep

But meanwhile, the high court on Tuesday (February 16) dismissed an electoral protest in favor of vice president Leni Robredo. Again, and similar to De Lima’s case, this was one of those long-running legal actions involving women that are a thorn on the president’s side.

The protest was filed by Marcos Jr., who lost to Robredo in the vice-presidential race of the 2016 elections. He was Duterte’s favored bet, the president himself having acknowledged that the Marcos family contributed financially to his campaign. Robredo briefly served in the cabinet at the outset before she was dismissed, and later in 2019, she took the president’s challenge to help run a government agency on anti-illegal drugs but only to find herself removed quickly again when it appeared that she was performing so well that it embarrassed the president.

In the third attempt by Marcos Jr. to unseat Robredo (saying that he was cheated), the court unanimously dismissed his contention as groundless. That said late in day when a six-year term is about to be over, and when by this time the next presidential race is already on the horizon. Robredo became “a permanent political outcast,” according to an editorial by the Philippine Daily Inquirer, while Marcos Jr., her opponent, enjoyed “fulsome assistance” from the country’s solicitor general.

This latest round of victory has given Robredo a boost to her reputation, which soared in the time of the pandemic: it was her office that rolled out help for the frontliners, the coronavirus patients, and the unemployed who lost their jobs in the lockdown. Her office literally turned into a warehouse filled with donation boxes from private companies and non-government organizations – revealing trust in her duty while the national government was moving at a snail pace.

With one more year down the road before the next elections come around, are these signs – the back-to-back court decisions – revealing something of the lame duck that might be gripping President Duterte? And will the coming round of political exercise, one that will yet again determine the course of the country’s fragile democracy, involve the women the president had sought to destroy?

At this stage when the campaign period has not even started, Duterte’s next political maneuver might be apparent when election tarpaulins are seen in parts of the capital and other provinces. They say, “Run Sara Run,” referring to Duterte’s daughter, Sara Duterte, who is currently mayor of Davao City. Another woman in the ring, but there is no question that she has inherited her father’s brutal style.


This article is among the stories we choose to make widely available. If you wish to get the full Asia Sentinel experience and access more exclusive content, please do subscribe to us.