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A Muntinlupa court on Wednesday, February 17, acquitted opposition Senator Leila de Lima in one of her 3 conspiracy to commit drug trading charges.
In separate rulings, Judge Liezel Aquiatan of Muntinlupa Regional Trial Court (RTC) Branch 205 granted De Lima's demurrer to evidence in Case Number 17-166, but denied the same in Case Number 17-165.
A demurrer is a plea to dismiss a case on the basis of weak evidence.
The granted plea in Case Number 17-166 means she has been acquitted in that case. Her co-accused in this case is a certain Jad Dera, but Judge Aquiatan denied Dera's demurrer. The judge, however, allowed Dera to post bail worth P500,000.
The denied plea in Case Number 17-165 means the defense will have to move to its presentation of evidence. Her co-accused in this case is her bodyguard Ronnie Dayan. Judge Aquiatan also denied the motion for bail in this case.
De Lima's defense team filed demurrers to evidence in both Case Numbers 17-165 and 17-166.
Because their demurrer was filed with permission from court, a denied demurrer doesn't waive the defense's right to present evidence. This simply means trial will continue in Case Number 17-165.
In response to the rulings, Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said that the Department of Justice "has always trusted in the good judgment and impartiality of the trial court."
"We believe that the honorable judge has diligently examined and weighed all the evidence presented by the prosecution before making a determination as to its sufficiency or insufficiency, and for this reason we reiterate our utmost respect," he added in a statement.
In the 41-page ruling acquitting De Lima, the judge said the prosecution was able to establish a factual link between Peter Co and Dera but that "the prosecution did not present sufficient evidence to establish Dera's relationship or connection with De Lima."
"The prosecution could have presented documentary evidence that will support any of the allegations of the witnesses that Dera was a nephew or a security aide of De Lima, but did not do so," said the judge.
"The prosecution fails to establish any conspiracy between De Lima and Dera as there was nothing to link the two together," the judge added.
In the 35-page ruling denying the other plea to dismiss the case, the judge gave weight to the testimonies of former corrections acting chief Rafael Ragos and agent Jun Ablen, who both testified to personally delivering P10 million to De Lima in her home.
Ragos and Ablen said they handed the money to Dayan, and then they saw Dayan hand the money to De Lima.
Judge Aquiatan said that while De Lima denied that the she was the one who personally received the money, she "did not investigate the source" of the money, nor did she return it.
The judge said "it is imperative" for both De Lima and Dayan to explain the alleged receipt of the money, and for De Lima to explain why the Criminal Investigation and Detection Group (CIDG) as well as the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) were excluded in an Oplan Galugad.
The judge said De Lima must explain why high-profile convicts were able to keep special privileges, and why drug trading continued in Bilibid.
"These facts, if unrebutted, the same is prima facie sufficient to support a verdict of guilt against the accused," said the judge.
De Lima is on the defense's witness list and is prepared to take the stand, said her lawyer Rolly Peoro.
De Lima's 3rd charge, Case Number 17-167, is still pending before Muntinlupa RTC Branch 256 under Judge Romeo Buenaventura. The prosecution is still presenting its evidence for that case, and has been putting witnesses on the stand for the purposes of De Lima's motion for bail.
In a statement, De Lima said "to be acquitted even in just one case, in the time of Duterte, is a victory."
De Lima also said it seems the court took Ragos' and Ablen's testimonies "at face value," maintaining that their accounts "are a lie."
De Lima's defense lawyer Boni Tacardon said at a press conference Wednesday night that they will appeal the denied demurrer in the case, at least in the aspect of bail so they could have another bid to release the senator even temporarily.
De Lima's lawyers are hoping that an acquittal in the other case will at least boost her motion for bail in the 3rd case.
"We cannot tell what the judge in Case 17-167 will do because it is an independent court – even the allegations are different – but we are confident in our motion for bail that, again, the 5 witnesses presented so far by the prosecution already established the innocence of Senator Leila de Lima," Peoro earlier told Rappler.
In the last bail hearing on Case 17-167, Peoro said convict Noel Martinez testified on the stand that he had never personally transacted with De Lima.
De Lima is accused of conspiring to run a drug trade inside the New Bilibid Prison (NBP) allegedly to fund her 2016 senatorial campaign.
The only convict claiming to have personal knowledge, Jaybee Sebastian, died of COVID-19 in July 2020 without taking the witness stand. Sebastian had pleaded guilty to the charge.
An investigation of the Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLC) into the Bilibid drug trade has established no direct link to De Lima, according to the witnesses from the AMLC.
In her demurrer, De Lima told the court that the Department of Justice (DOJ) obscured the truth about the Bilibid drug trade by allegedly turning a blind eye on evidence against its witness, former Bureau of Corrections officer-in-charge Rafael Ragos, in order to jail her.
De Lima has been detained in a Camp Crame facility since February 24, 2017, over what she called trumped-up charges stemming from her strong criticism of President Rodrigo Duterte's controversial drug war.
Read the full court decisions below.
Muntinlupa court ruling acquitting De Lima:
Muntinlupa court ruling denying De Lima's plea: