[UPDATED] MANILA, Philippines – Former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and her husband, Mike, entered a “not guilty” plea over corruption charges Wednesday, April 11, after facing arraignment together for the first time.
At the anti-graft court Sandiganbayan in Quezon City, the former First Couple underwent court proceedings with resigned Commission on Elections (Comelec) chair Benjamin Abalos, who served during Mrs Arroyo's presidency, in what could be a first in Philippine history.
Abalos also pleaded not guilty.
The arraignment was done at 8:28 am.
"Panggigipit lang talaga ito ng administrasyon sa amin (This is just the administration's way to persecute us)," Mr Arroyo told reporters in an interview after the arraignment. "Hindi naman talaga kami guilty dito eh (We are not really guilty)."
Her lawyer for another case, Benjamin Santos, said their camp believes Mrs Arroyo will be "vindicated." "We still believe in the judicial process of this country," Santos said.
Mrs Arroyo left the Sandiganbayan in a wheelchair. "Nanlalambot na. Masakit ang likod niya (She's feeling weak. She's enduring back pains)," Mr Arroyo said.
The court set a pre-trial conference on June 4, where both parties will pre-mark documentary evidence needed for the trial.
Mrs Arroyo's lawyer, Jose Flaminiano, earlier asked the court that she be allowed to waive the reading of information against her but was overruled.
Their case involves the botched $329-M National Broadband Network (NBN) deal.
Mr Arroyo will ask the court to dismiss the charges against him on the basis of lack of jurisdiction since he's not a government official.
The former First Couple arrived at the court premises at 7:45 am. Mrs Arroyo appeared to be in good spirits. She said she hasn't found time to read since she's finishing her memoirs.
Photo courtesy of PNP-PIO
Sought for comment, Presidential Spokesperson Edwin Lacierda said: "The Sandiganbayan now has jurisdiction over her. We hope our people will continue to monitor the development of the case with interest."
In the charge it filed late last year, the Ombudsman accused Mrs Arroyo of using the presidency to push for the proposal of a Chinese firm, ZTE Inc, to undertake the controversial NBN project. The former President thus faces 2 counts of graft and another charge for allegedly violating the ethical code for public officials.
The first graft charge named Mr Arroyo, Abalos, and former Transportation Sec Leandro Mendoza as co-accused.
Mendoza, however, requested for a one-month deferment of his arraignment due his ongoing recovery from a stroke last month.
Photo by Paterno Esmaquel II
“NBN-ZTE has been an issue for a long time,” said Deputy Presidential Spokesperson Abigail Valte during a Palace press briefing late last year. “The Filipino people have long been waiting for closure, and this is the process by which we, as a people, can get closure.”
Arroyo's 2nd case
This is the second case for which Mrs Arroyo underwent arraignment.
In February, she also entered a “not guilty” plea in connection to an electoral sabotage charge that has led to her detention at the Veterans Memorial Medical Center (VMMC) in Quezon City. Her trial for this case begins later this month.
Paterno R. Esmaquel II is a senior reporter leading Rappler’s coverage of religion and foreign affairs. He finished MA Journalism in Ateneo and MSc Asian Studies (Religions in Plural Societies) at RSIS, Singapore. For story ideas or feedback, email him at email@example.com.