Department of Justice

De Lima: Guevarra needs more spine

Lian Buan
De Lima: Guevarra needs more spine

CALLS FOR FREEDOM. Supporters of jailed Senator Leila De Lima hold a prayer vigil in front of the Department of Justice on Wednesday, May 4. Photo from Office of Senator De Lima

'I have devoted the last four years of my legal career to shore up the image of the DOJ as an institution worthy of the people's trust,' says Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra

MANILA, Philippines – He’s a decent guy, but he needs more spine.

That’s how jailed opposition leader Senator Leila de Lima described Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra for the latter’s hands-off approach in investigating the claims of a former high official of the justice department that there was an institution-wide conspiracy to invent false evidence against her.

Rafael Ragos, former corrections chief and the prosecution’s star witness, retracted this week his testimony against De Lima, accusing former justice secretary Vitaliano Aguirre of coercing him. In his affidavit, Ragos named a former justice undersecretary, a prosecutor, directors of the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI), “all prosecutors handling the case and lawyers from the Public Attorneys’ Office” in the alleged plot to make him testify falsely that he delivered drug money to De Lima.

Guevarra said it would be in the best interest of everyone if the Office of the Ombudsman investigates the claim.

“I do see Guevarra as a decent guy. I see him as honorable, but sad to say he needs more spine,” said De Lima, speaking to Rappler in an interview from Camp Crame’s detention facility on Wednesday, May 4, with supervision of Department of Justice (DOJ) representatives and with no recording device allowed.

De Lima said that “while it’s prudent” to let the Ombudsman investigate, “I would expect him to dig deeper.”

“This is the institution we are talking about. Doesn’t he care about the image of the DOJ when you have no less than the former justice secretary involved? What kind of a justice institution is it if it allows lies? He has to do something,” said De Lima.

Responding to Rappler’s request for comment, Guevarra said: “I have devoted the last four years of my legal career to shore up the image of the DOJ as an institution worthy of the people’s trust.”

DOJ under Guevarra

Guevarra was appointed by President Rodrigo Duterte in 2018 after Aguirre resigned following successive controversies, the last of which was the dismissal of complaints against alleged drug lord Peter Lim.

Guevarra made undersecretaries and assistant secretaries resign so he could bring his own people. His first actions aligned with the interests of the political opposition, even earning him praise from Duterte’s harshest critics.

To a large extent, De Lima has also spared him, refusing to categorically answer if she included him in her list of accusers that the United States would sanction with travel bans, pursuant to the Global Magnitsky Act.

After the retractions of Ragos and alleged drug lord Kerwin Espinosa, the DOJ was still standing firm with the charges. This is amid calls from human rights groups for the DOJ to withdraw the charges and free De Lima, expediting a process where the court would assess the weight of the retractions.

“I have mixed feelings. Masaya akong lumalabas ang katotohanan (I am happy that the truth is coming out), but I feel so bad about the institution I once led. I poured my heart out, and I know that most of the men and women of DOJ are good people. I definitely blame Aguirre and Duterte,” said De Lima.

In Guevarra’s view, he had restored the people’s trust in the justice department, despite the DOJ being either the enabler or implementer of Duterte’s contentious legal orders, particularly during the pandemic.

By the end of the pandemic, Guevarra was starting to dissent with Duterte’s legal opinions, except that he is set on leaving it up to the courts to decide De Lima’s fate.

“I am not about to ruin this newfound image by co-opting with personal machinations or succumbing to public demagoguery. My vision is as clear as the light of the midday sun: uphold the law and let the hammer of justice fall where it may fall,” said Guevarra. (PODCAST: Law of Duterte Land: DOJ and warrantless arrests)

‘I feel so bad about what Aguirre has done’

To Aguirre, Ragos’ retraction does not put the DOJ in a bad light.

“Nagsosolo itong si Ragos at ang kaniyang circumstances surrounding his retraction ay talagang hindi kapani-paniwala. Hindi ‘yan pinaniniwalaan kahit ng mga judges at meron ngang desisyon na ang Supreme Court diyan na unless backed up by incontrovertible evidence, hindi paniniwalaan ‘yan,” said Aguirre in a Zoom interview with reporters Wednesday.

(Ragos is doing this on his own, and the circumstances surrounding his retraction are not believable. Judges won’t believe that because there is a decision from the Supreme Court that says unless backed by incontrovertible evidence, they won’t believe it.)

In his affidavit, Ragos implied that DOJ officials coerced him to make false accusations against De Lima to earn brownie points with Malacañang.

“It’s more than that. Inutos ‘yun. (They were ordered.) I feel so bad about what Aguirre has done to the DOJ,” said De Lima. –

Lian Buan

Lian Buan covers justice and corruption for Rappler. She is interested in decisions, pleadings, audits, contracts, and other documents that establish a trail. If you have leads, email or tweet @lianbuan.