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Calls mount to free De Lima after star witness recants

Xave Gregorio - Philstar.com
Calls mount to free De Lima after star witness recants
This photo taken on February 8, 2022 shows Philippine Vice President and opposition presidential candidate Leni Robredo (R) speaking as she endorses the senatorial candidacy of detained senator Leila de Lima next to a large cardboard cut out of de Lima (C), while de Lima's spokesperson Dino de Leon (L) looks on, during a campaign rally in the city of Naga, Camarines sur province, south of Manila. From behind bars, Philippine senator and human rights campaigner Leila de Lima is running for re-election in an against-the-odds campaign that gives her the chance to once again "go after" President Rodrigo Duterte.
AFP / Charism Sayat

MANILA, Philippines — Allies of detained Sen. Leila de Lima renewed their calls for her freedom after a key witness in one of the drug cases against her retracted and called his previous testimonies against the opposition lawmaker "fiction, false and fabricated."

Vice President Leni Robredo — a candidate for president — led the flurry of demands for the release of De Lima, saying the recent recantations of witnesses against De Lima is proof that the senator, who is running for re-election under her ticket, is innocent.

"This is proof of what I’ve long been insisting: There is no case against Sen. Leila de Lima. Her only sin is telling the truth and protecting the rights of our fellow Filipinos," Robredo said in a statement in Filipino.

Former Bureau of Corrections officer-in-charge Rafael Ragos, the Department of Justice’s star witness against De Lima in one drug case, said in an affidavit that he was coerced by government lawyers and former Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II to make false allegations against the opposition lawmaker and her aide Ronnie Dayan.

Ragos’ retraction came just days after confessed drug lord Kerwin Espinosa also recanted his allegations against De Lima. But while Espinosa is not a prosecution witness, according to the DOJ, Ragos is.

When De Lima moved to have the case against her dismissed by challenging the sufficiency of evidence presented against her, Presiding Judge Liezel Aquiatan denied her motion saying, “From the testimonies of the prosecution witnesses, it is clear that the money were collected as contributions to the fund raising of accused De Lima for her campaign as senator.”

In a ruling in February 2021, the court said De Lima and Dayan must explain the P10 million they received — the allegation that Ragos had just recanted.

"There is no reason for Sen. Leila to stay behind bars. She should be freed as soon as possible," Robredo said.

‘Rotten justice system’

The independent presidential candidate’s running mate, Sen. Kiko Pangilinan, also called for De Lima’s immediate freedom, saying her detention on supposedly false charges for more than five years is proof of the "rotten justice system" in the country.

“If a senator can be jailed on false claims, what more for ordinary citizens? It’s like justice fell victim to a summary killing,” Pangilinan said in a separate statement in Filipino.

Lawyer Chel Diokno, Free Legal Assistance Group chairperson and De Lima’s fellow senatorial candidate under the Robredo-Pangilinan ticket, echoed this in his statement.

"If DOJ officials can intimidate witnesses like Ragos and get away with it, what kind of justice can we expect?" Diokno said, stressing that those behind the alleged moves against De Lima should be held accountable.

Along with calling for De Lima’s freedom, Diokno appealed to Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra to place prosecutors and other people involved in the supposed coercion of Ragos on leave while an investigation takes place.

Destroying De Lima

De Lima has been detained since February 24, 2017 on drug charges she says are fabricated as part of the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte's ploy to exact vengeance on her over her investigation into the brutal killings committed in the course of the “drug war.”

In 2016, Duterte himself said he wanted to “destroy” De Lima for having “libeled” and “slandered” him.

Even in jail, De Lima remained a fierce critic of the Duterte administration, sending out handwritten statements from her cell in Camp Crame in Quezon City countering the government’s policies.

The feisty senator is mounting an uphill battle to reclaim a seat in the Senate from behind bars. Surrogates are campaigning for her across the country and in rallies of the Robredo-Pangilinan ticket, but this has proven to be insufficient to pull her numbers up in pre-election surveys.

"Sen. Leila should be freed. We want to be with her on our miting de avance," Pangilinan said, referring to the traditional rallies signaling the end of the campaign season. — with a report from Kristine Joy Patag

KERWIN ESPINOSA

LEILA DE LIMA

RAFAEL RAGOS

RONNIE DAYAN

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