Leila de Lima

De Lima hopes to be free this year: ‘I will go after my oppressors’

Lian Buan
De Lima hopes to be free this year: ‘I will go after my oppressors’

OPPOSITION SENATOR. Sen. Leila M. de Lima attends resumption of hearing at the Muntinlupa RTC Branch 256.

Office of Leila de Lima

Why did the retractions happen so close to the elections? 'Conscience has no timeline,' says De Lima

MANILA, Philippines – Senator Leila De Lima has ruled out any prospect of her being freed in time for the miting de avance before election day, but the jailed opposition leader said she “hopes to be free this year” and go after her oppressors.

Whether she wins or loses her re-election bid, De Lima said once she’s free, “I would go after my oppressors. There has to be justice. There has to be accountability.”

Rappler sat down with De Lima inside a room at the Philippine National Police (PNP) Custodial Center on Wednesday, May 4, two days after the star witness against her, former corrections chief Rafael Ragos, retracted his testimony. The senator calls the room the “court room” as it’s where she and her fellow detainees go to to attend virtual hearings.

Stripped of a bench and a gallery, Wednesday’s interview felt like a court room as there were three representatives of the Department of Justice (DOJ) supervising the conversation, making sure nothing sub judice was said, or anything relating to the merits of her remaining two charges.

Top on the list of who she considers her oppressors is former justice secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II, whom Ragos accused in his affidavit as coercing him to invent the false testimony.

“Why retract now when the May 9, 2022 National Elections is only a few days away, and the accused, Senator Leila de Lima, is lagging very far behind in surveys and voter’s preferences? Is it possible that Mr. Ragos is being used as a pawn in last ditch efforts to gain sympathy from voters?” Aguirre said in a statement Wednesday, denying Ragos’ accusations.

De Lima said she had no idea that Ragos, and even alleged drug lord Kerwin Espinosa, were going to make the retractions.

“I expected them to retract even back then, but it was still a surprise to me when they did it. It just so happens it’s the elections,” said De Lima, “but does conscience have a timeline?”

Charge Ragos – Aguirre

De Lima said she had forgiven both Espinosa, Ragos, and even all other convicts who have testified against her.

Her oppressors, De Lima said, are Aguirre and President Rodrigo Duterte.

“I have forgiven them already. All of them who were used. It’s hard to forgive but I have to, because my Catholic faith has sthrengthened while in detention. But Duterte? I’m not sure. Aguirre, I don’t know yet,” said De Lima.

Ragos was acting corrections chief under De Lima in the DOJ, and was charged alongside her in February 2017. But in November that year, the DOJ under Aguirre dropped Ragos as a respondent to make him witness.

Aguirre said the DOJ needs to reinstate Ragos as a respondent. That can happen, Aguirre said, if the dismissal of charges against Ragos underwent automatic review, for resolution by the justice secretary. (The DOJ has a rule that every dismissed drug case on the prosecutors’ level goes through automatic review.)

“I believe that it should be reviewed. Kung talagang tutuusin, he is a principal, by direct participation dun sa drug trading na ‘yan (If you look at it, he is a principal respondent, his participation to the drug trading was direct)” Aguirre said in a Zoom interview with reporters Wednesday.

Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra and Prosecutor General Ben Malcontento told Rappler, Wednesday, they would check the records if the dismissal indeed went through automatic review. The DOJ is standing firm with its charges, and remains confident that Ragos’ retraction will not affect their chances of conviction.

Ragos initially claimed delivering drug payout money to De Lima’s home, only to retract now, saying he was coerced by Aguirre with the help of National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) directors, prosecutors and public attorneys.

If Ragos is reinstated as respondent, wouldn’t that tarnish the credibility of the cases for flip-flopping?

“I don’t know… As a matter of fact that retraction has no use. It is being not looked upon in favor by the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court said any retraction should be ignored unless backed up by incontrovertible evidence,” said Aguirre.

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‘He’s a liar’

Sending a dispatch from Camp Crame, Wednesday afternoon, after learning of Aguirre’s remarks, De Lima said: “Aguirre is a certified liar. I hope he realizes the damage he has done to the DOJ as an institution.”

Ragos said in his affidavit Aguirre met him twice to coerce him – in September 2016 in Solaire, and in Greenhills on an unspecified date.

Aguirre said he could not recall. Aguirre said he did meet with Ragos, but supposedly only because the latter was offering himself to be a witness.

Siguro mga dalawa [beses nagkita]. Mga dalawa sa DOJ. Hindi ko na talaga matandaan yung meeting sa other places, eh. Ang nalaman lang niya na merong affidavit si [Jun] Ablen na implicating him kaya ‘yun ang reason kasi talaga namang, because of that, talagang dinemanda siya ng DOJ prosecutor,” said Aguirre.

(I met him maybe twice at the DOJ. I really don’t remember that supposed meeting in other places. He found out Jun Ablen had an affidavit implicating him, so that was his reason, and because of that the DOJ prosecutors sued him.)

Jun Ablen is an NBI agent whom Ragos, in his now retracted testimony, said accompanied him to De Lima’s home to deliver the money. But during the trial, lawyers unearthed a memorandum from Ragos from years before saying Ablen is involved in the drug trade.

Aguirre washed his hands from the eventual decision of prosecutors to drop Ragos from the charge to turn him witness, even though he was still justice secretary when that happened.

“Hindi kasi iako nag-conduct ng investigation eh. Actually, sa DOJ kasi at that time, even up to now, nagkaroon ng parang delineation ng duties ng office of the prosecutor general and the DOJ secretary,” said Aguirre.

(I did not conduct the investigation. Actually, the DOJ at the time, even up to now, we have delineation of duties between the office of the prosecutor general and the DOJ secretary.)

De Lima had been given furloughs by the court when she needed to visit her ailing mother, who had been in critical confinement on two occasions. De Lima said she hopes she can reunite with her mother as a free woman: “I think that’s the only reason why she’s surviving.”

After five years in jail, De Lima still has no regrets, even though she admits she did not expect that her calculation of “a few years” in jail would last this long.

“It’s too long. But no [regrets] at all. Nothing worth doing is ever easy,” the senator said. – Rappler.com

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 lian.buan@rappler.com or tweet @lianbuan.