De Lima acquitted in 2nd drug case

Emmanuel Tupas - The Philippine Star
De Lima acquitted in 2nd drug case
Former senator Leila de Lima leaves the Muntinlupa City Regional Trial Court Branch 204, which acquitted her yesterday of the charge of conspiracy to commit illegal drug trading.
Ernie Peñaredondo

MANILA, Philippines — Detained former senator Leila de Lima has scored another legal victory after she was acquitted in one of the two remaining drug charges filed against her during the Duterte administration.

A Muntinlupa City court yesterday acquitted De Lima and her former driver, Ronnie Dayan, of the charge of conspiracy to commit illegal drug trading, on the ground of reasonable doubt.

De Lima, a fierce critic of former president Rodrigo Duterte, broke down in tears after hearing the verdict, defense lawyer Filibon Tacardon told reporters in an interview.

“Answered prayers. It’s a glorious day, this is the beginning of my vindication,” De Lima said as police escorted her to a coaster van that would take her back to her detention cell at the Philippine National Police Custodial Center at Camp Crame.

Justice Secretary Jesus Crispin Remulla, whose office leads in the prosecution of the former senator, said he respected the court ruling.

“The rule of law has prevailed and it just points out to us that the independence of the judiciary is a basic foundation of our democratic system,” Remulla said in a chance interview. “Just means that democracy is working.”

He earlier vowed not to stop prosecutors from pursuing the remaining case against De Lima, who has been detained for more than six years.

“We do not want to upset everything that the prosecutors are doing just because you arrive at the scene. You should allow the institution to continue as it functions because it will continue way beyond our time also,” Remulla said. “I haven’t read the decision, but it could have gone either way.”

Executive Secretary Lucas Bersamin also said De Lima’s acquittal was proof that the justice system was working.

“We have to respect the judge’s decision to acquit because he was the one who studied the evidence… I can’t say anything but praise the judge,” Bersamin said in an interview.

He admitted the court verdict was “another victory” for De Lima.

“I don’t want to congratulate her (De Lima)… that’s the justice system working,” the former chief justice said.

In a separate statement, De Lima said she had no doubt she would be acquitted in all the “fabricated” cases filed against her by the Duterte administration.

“I had no doubt from the very beginning that I will be acquitted in all the cases the Duterte regime has fabricated against me based on the merits and the strength of my innocence,” De Lima said.

Reasonable doubt

In a 39-page decision, Judge Abraham Joseph Alcaranta of Regional Trial Court Branch 204 cited the recantation of one of the witnesses against De Lima, former Bureau of Corrections chief Rafael Ragos, in dismissing the complaints.

“Under the circumstances of this case, the testimony of witness Ragos is necessary to sustain any possible conviction. Without his testimony, the crucial link to establish conspiracy is shrouded with reasonable doubt,” Alcantara said in his ruling.

Ragos previously testified that he personally delivered a total of P10 million to then justice secretary De Lima at her residence. The money, according to Ragos, was proceeds from illegal drug trading by convicts at the New Bilibid Prison. Her accusers claimed the money was intended to bankroll her senatorial bid.

But in 2022, Ragos recanted his testimony, saying then justice secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II coerced him into implicate De Lima in illegal drugs.

While the general rule is that recantations are not given much weight in deciding a case, Alcantara said a rare exception is when there is no evidence to sustain a judgment of conviction other than the testimonies of a witness or witnesses that turn out to be contradictory.

“Hence, this Court is constrained to consider the subsequent retraction of witness Ragos. Ultimately, the retraction created reasonable doubt which warrants the acquittal of both accused,” Alcantara’s ruling read.

As she was being brought out by her police escorts from the court building, De Lima asked her supporters for more prayers for another favorable decision on her petition for bail before the Muntinlupa RTC Branch 256. “Maraming salamat. More prayers for the other case,” she shouted at the crowd.

In February 2021, Muntinlupa Branch 205 dismissed a drug complaint lodged against De Lima.

But with her bail petition still pending with the other court, De Lima has to remain in detention.

Tacardon said they hope Branch 256 would come out with a resolution on De Lima’s petition for bail before the next scheduled hearing on June 5.

“We’re still hopeful justice and truth will prevail, and she is allowed temporary liberty at least while awaiting decision on her last case filed by the Duterte regime,” Tacardon said.

She thanked her supporters who never abandoned her and vowed to continue fighting until she gets justice.

“After getting justice today, it’s become clear that this will not be the end. My fight continues,” she said.

Adding to the pain of her detention, she said, was the realization that many of her loved ones and friends had died without her seeing them.

‘Full vindication’

Senate Minority Leader Aquilino Pimentel III praised the court “for being true to its mandate to dispense justice without fear or favor by strictly following the evidence.”

“Though the course is long, justice is finally prevailing,” opposition Sen. Risa Hontiveros said as she expressed confidence in De Lima’s “full vindication and eventual liberty.”

“The false narrative and web of lies that led to her imprisonment is finally being undone. The real crime has always been her arrest,” Hontiveros said.

“Justice for former Sen. Leila will be completed when the sinister plot to put her in jail only for speaking out for the truth and welfare of our fellow Filipinos is fully exposed in daylight,” she added.

She expressed hope De Lima’s acquittal would pave the road to justice for all victims of the war on drugs and “sound the death knell for this inhuman policy.”

Former Senate president Franklin Drilon said he was elated by news of De Lima’s acquittal and voiced hope the detained senator would be granted bail in her third and last pending case as the principal witness of the prosecution had already recanted.

Since the charges against De Lima turned out to be fabricated, officials of the Duterte administration responsible for filing them should be held accountable, he stressed.

Former senator Antonio Trillanes IV, in a Twitter post, said freedom nears for De Lima and “redemption and vindication are next.”

Another former senator, Francis Pangilinan, said her acquittal was a welcome development even if it had taken the court too long to decide.

“We have from Day 1 called for the dismissal of the charges but, as the saying goes, better late than never,” Pangilinan said.

“Justice is rendered, albeit late. After having been acquitted in two of the three contrived drug cases against her, Sen. De Lima must be freed on bail in the last case still pending trial. She deserves full exoneration and final liberation,” Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman said.

Lagman is president of the opposition Liberal Party, which counts De Lima as member.

“It is long overdue, given that there was no case in the first place as the witnesses were just forced to lie in court. At any rate this is a good development and we hope that she will be freed soon with the resolution of her last case,” said party-list Bayan Muna chairman Neri Colmenares.

Another Bayan Muna official, Carlos Isagani Zarate, said “justice trumps lies and ex cathedra fakeries. We trust that the remaining trumped-up charges against her should also be resolved soon.”

‘Victory for truth’

Former vice president Leni Robredo said the Muntinlupa court’s decision was a victory for the truth.

“Right from the start, I had full confidence in Sen Leila’s innocence. Despite the six years that she was restrained and persecuted, I was sure that the day would come when she would regain her freedom and good name,” she added.

“The dismissal of this case, due to the lack of any evidence against her, is a clear step toward this day,” she added.

Human rights and cause-oriented groups also welcomed the acquittal of De Lima.

“The partial acquittal of prisoner of conscience and human rights defender Leila de Lima was long overdue. While justice has been slow for her, it follows years of arbitrary detention and other human rights violations she has had to endure,” Amnesty International’s interim deputy regional director for research Montse Ferrer said in a statement.

“We urge the authorities to also quash the remaining drug case and to ensure that her application for temporary freedom in this pending case is processed speedily and fairly. The authorities must not delay her release any longer and allow her to be reunited with her family, friends and supporters after six long years,” Ferrer added.

She also called on the Marcos administration to work toward “holding accountable those responsible for her arbitrary detention, which clearly violated her rights to liberty, presumption of innocence and other fair trial guarantees.”

Karapatan, for its part, praised De Lima for remaining firm and steadfast in speaking out against abuses committed by the Duterte administration.

“As we welcome Sen. Leila’s acquittal and call for her release, we likewise call for the release of all political prisoners like her who have been persecuted because of their work and beliefs on human rights and social justice,” Karapatan secretary general Cristina Palabay said.

The Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilpinas said it hopes De Lima “regains her freedom soon so she can join the people in “our continuing battle for truth, justice and accountability.”

Human Rights Watch (HRW) said De Lima’s acquittal “demonstrates again the bogus, harassing nature of the charges” against her.

“Leila de Lima’s steadfast commitment to human rights and the rule of law are commendable and should be recognized,” said HRW deputy Asia director Phil Robertson.

“Freeing her now is critical so she can return to her family, leaving the injustice of years behind bars in pre-trial detention caused by Duterte’s vengeful cruelty.”

For the Movement Against Disinformation, the court’s decision is a testament to fairness, equity and credibility of the judiciary.

“We look to the day that all the other cases against her are resolved, and so she could walk free and rejoin the ranks of advocates and truth-tellers,” it said. — Paolo Romero, Helen Flores, Janvic Mateo, Marc Jayson Cayabyab, Delon Porcalla, Elizabeth Marcelo

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