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  • "I Won't Be Silenced"A Conversation with Incarcerated Philippine Senator Leila De Lima
  • Sen. Leila De Lima

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When the current president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, was mayor of Davao City, he allegedly founded and funded a vigilante group that executed at least 1,000 people, mostly purported drug users. The killers would reportedly leave a note on the corpses: "Addict. Don't be like me." And the warning would be signed: "Davao Death Squad."

In September 2016, Edgar Matobato, who said he was one of the group's hitmen, told a Philippine Senate committee that he'd personally executed about 50 individuals and even once fed a body to a crocodile. He directly tied Duterte to these killings, and said that Duterte himself had mowed down a justice department official with an Uzi.

It was the first high-profile evidence implicating the president in mass murder. Duterte has alternatively denied and confirmed a role in these executions.

Hearing these explosive allegations, the chair of the committee, Sen. Leila de Lima, could not have been surprised. She has long been an adversary of Duterte. In 2009, when Lima was head of the Philippine Commission on Human Rights, she summoned then-Mayor Duterte to speak about the spate of murders and, in her words, "berated him."

Following Matobato's testimony, Lima was accused of drug trafficking and ousted from the Senate investigation. She was soon arrested and has been incarcerated since February. She denies all charges.

Despite being in prison, she's maintained her fierce opposition to Duterte. She knows the danger of speaking out. Last October, a mayor jailed on similar grounds was shot dead in his cell.

Lima has no access to a laptop or phone, but she does have weekly visits with her advisers, who can deliver correspondence. All her responses to World Policy Journal questions were submitted via her staff. [End Page 59]

World Policy Journal:

You investigated Rodrigo Duterte's role in extrajudicial killings as far back as 2009 when he was mayor of Davao City. Can you give us an idea of how his War on Drugs affects the daily lives of regular Filipinos?

Sen. Leila de Lima:

We must recognize that the Davao Death Squad and the present national phenomenon of EJKs [extrajudicial killings] are a state system of "social cleansing." We are witnessing the mass serialized murder of those who have been painted as the dregs of society and enemies of the state. This is the breakdown of modern democracy in the Philippines and of a legal system that values individual human rights.

Imagine living in this society, where once the government and its death squads target you, you can be killed at any time. Imagine what almost 9,000 executions do to a nation. Imagine the tens of thousands of orphans, widows, relatives, and friends of the victims of extrajudicial killings living in fear and crying out for justice.

Most of the victims are allegedly smalltime drug users and pushers. They are the poorest of the poor. Are they even guilty? We will never know, because none of them have gone through the judicial process. Even if they were to undergo the judicial process and be found guilty, we do not have the death penalty. Living in slum communities, they are defenseless against masked men and law enforcers who break into their homes and kill them for cash. There is now a normalized economy of murder.

The number of dead is downplayed. Police abuses are denied—despite numerous findings that officers plant drugs and handguns to make it appear that their victims were killed because they fought back. The president and his officials do not see drug addicts as part of humanity. They dismiss them as beyond rehabilitation and, therefore, undeserving of due process.

Poor and ordinary Filipino drug suspects are simply killed, often wrapped in packing tape with a cardboard sign warning others not to emulate them, their bodies dumped by the side of the road. Meanwhile, those with power and money are able to get away.

Domestic surveys show decreased support for the administration's campaign against illegal drugs and...


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