The recent release from a police detention center of former Senator Leila de Lima could not come at the most opportune time. Why so? The lower court decision best demonstrated how the justice system in the Philippines works, albeit painstakingly slow.
Now 64 years old, the former Senator was finally allowed to post bail for her temporary liberty and got freed more than a week ago. It was after almost seven years of being detained at the Philippine National Police (PNP) Custodial Center at Camp Crame in Quezon City. She spent more than half of her six-year term of office as a Senator while under detention.
A lawyer by profession, the feisty Senator was kept busy defending herself in three criminal cases lodged before different Metro Manila regional trial courts (RTC). All three separate De Lima cases were filed during the administration of former President Rodrigo Duterte.
Speaking of ex-President Duterte, the International Criminal Court (ICC) gets a new wind to push the investigation on the former Philippine leader on crimes against humanity charges. Mr. Duterte is being held to account for the alleged extrajudicial killings of suspected drug dealers during his watch at Malacañang.
So far, De Lima hurdled two of the three illegal drugs cases, which were dismissed by the courts. In February 2021, De Lima was acquitted on her first criminal case. In May 2023, De Lima was acquitted also on the second illegal drugs case after the recantation of two state witnesses. Supposedly “bothered by their conscience,” they both recanted their respective sworn testimonies against De Lima.
The only remaining active case of De Lima is the conspiracy on illegal drugs charges pending before Muntinlupa RTC Branch 206 Judge Gener Gito. This third case finally got De Lima’s motion for reconsideration (MR) for bail petitions – repeatedly denied in the past by two previous sitting judges – granted by Gito.
Last week, ex-Duterte presidential spokesperson Harry Roque questioned the alleged “relationship” between De Lima and Judge Gito. Not disclosed beforehand to the public prosecutors, Roque described Judge Gito as once a “favorite student” of De Lima at the San Beda College of Law. Via his personal Facebook account “Harry Roque Live,” he revealed this information coming from unnamed classmate of Judge Gito.
Repeating the same accusations during our Kapihan sa Manila Bay news forum last Wednesday, Roque clarified Gito later transferred and eventually graduated from the College of Law at San Sebastian University. But still he urged Judge Gito to voluntarily recuse himself out of delicadeza.
As of this writing, there was no denial or rebuttal from either Judge Gito or from the camp of ex-Sen. De Lima.
Ironically, the Department of Justice (DOJ) prosecutors handling this third case have yet to initiate action on the reported student-professor connection of the two.
Muntinlupa RTC Branch 256 Judge Romeo Buenaventura was the first to inhibit self from handling the case of De Lima. It was after Buenaventura’s brother Emmanuel came out in public as the former legal counsel of the Senator’s erstwhile driver and co-accused Ronnie Dayan who much earlier recanted, too, his previous affidavit against his former boss.
Another ex-Duterte Cabinet official, former Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre III concurred with the legal opinion of Roque. Speaking at the same Kapihan sa Manila Bay news forum, Aguirre supported Roque’s call to lawmakers to revisit the country’s Revised Penal Code against perjury.
Back to his private law practice, Aguirre sought to impose stiffer penalties against witnesses who recant their sworn testimonies not only before the courts but also during congressional hearings and in quasi-judicial bodies.
Under existing Penal Law, an imprisonment of six months is imposed for those who commit perjury. But even if convicted for perjury, the minimum six-month jail sentence is reduced to probation instead. “It is just a slap on the wrist,” Roque quipped.
Aguirre in particular singled out the recantation on De Lima’s case by former Bureau of Corrections chief Rafael Ragos. A key witness in the trial, Ragos retracted his allegations that he delivered money to De Lima who was then DOJ Secretary during the administration of the late President Benigno Simeon “PNoy” Aquino III. In May 2022, Ragos executed an affidavit claiming he was “coerced to make false allegations” against his former DOJ boss.
Aguirre recalled Ragos earlier confessed having delivered to De Lima on two different occasions a bag containing P5 million each. Aguirre further quoted Ragos’ testimony that the money allegedly came from illegal drugs collections of jailed druglords operating their illicit trade inside the New Bilibid Prison at Muntinlupa City. In his original narratives, Ragos surmised the money deliveries were intended to finance the campaign of De Lima who was then running for the Senate race in the May 2016 elections.
Aguirre counted as many as eight times Ragos testified to these information under oath “to tell the truth and nothing but the truth. So help me God.” Of this total, Aguirre noted Ragos swore to the truthfulness of his allegations during the six times the latter appeared before the House congressional hearing and twice at the Senate public hearing.
This does not include the sworn testimony of Ragos before the DOJ’s Public Attorney’s Office (PAO), Aguirre added. “And the PAO still has the video taken during that same testimony where Ragos himself was even the one coaching the PAO lawyers what questions to ask him,” Aguirre disclosed.
He invoked several Supreme Court rulings in the past that set aside and discouraged recantation of witnesses.
Nonetheless, both Roque and Aguirre believe the release on bail of De Lima is the best proof to the ICC that the Philippine judicial system works.
In fact, Aguirre cited, De Lima got acquitted in one of her three illegal drugs cases during the last few months into office of the Duterte administration. But hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.