Leila de Lima

[Vantage Point] Leila de Lima’s case: A perversion of justice

Val A. Villanueva

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[Vantage Point] Leila de Lima’s case: A perversion of justice

ON TRIAL. Former senator Leila de Lima waves to her supporters at the Muntinlupa City Regional Trial Court on January 27, 2023.

Inoue Jaena/Rappler

Leila de Lima’s case has an uncanny similarity to that of Sergei Magnitsky, the Russian tax lawyer who exposed a massive tax fraud involving high government officials

I loathe receiving apologies. To me, apologizing is just like pulling the knife out from the heart of a person you have just stabbed. It’s extremely more painful than the initial thrust of the blade.

I find it difficult to watch whistle blower and  former Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office (PCSO) board member Sandra Cam apologizing to Senator Leila de Lima for her role in the latter’s unjust detention. Cam issued the apology after she was released on January 17, 2023, from the Philippine National Police (PNP) Custodial Center where she was detained over murder charges .

The apology came two days after she gained her freedom. Cam confessed that she “was used as a tool” for De Lima’s imprisonment six years ago and her continued detention: “I witnessed and shared her hardships of being unjustly imprisoned. I have asked for her forgiveness and I have expressed regret over my mistakes. And the restoration of our friendship is more important than politics.” 

It’s strange, but I felt as if I were the one she stabbed and here she was pulling the blade out of my bleeding chest. 

Cam was instrumental in fleecing evidence against De Lima, particularly during the inquiries into the drug trade in the New Bilibid Prison that both the House of Representatives and Senate conducted in 2016. It was because of her that confessed drug lord Kerwin Espinosa – one of those who implicated De Lima in the Bilibid drug trading – was brought back to the country in October 2016 after he was arrested by authorities in Abu Dhabi on the tip of his employee.

De Lima’s congressional probe was the lowest our elected representatives could have sunk into. She was subjected to misogynistic taunts which Peeping Toms gleefully watched from the comfort of their homes. The proceedings were telecast live and replayed with annotations in evening newscasts. In that supposedly august hall, De Lima was fed to hungry wolves who proceeded to gore and tear her apart.

De Lima’s agony

No judge in a country with a functioning judicial system would order the arrest of a sitting senator, or anybody for that matter, solely on the testimonies of hardened criminals. But that was exactly what happened to the lady senator. She was thrown in jail on the say-so of Herbert Colanggo, a man serving a life sentence for murdering ten people in a botched bank robbery.

Under the law, the prosecution must offer proof that a person is guilty beyond reasonable doubt of the crime he or she is being charged. Based on that precept, De Lima should not be convicted, but exonerated of all charges.

Four other witnesses, who made the most damning testimonies against her, have since walked back on their claims. And yet, the Department of Justice, under both Rodrigo Duterte and Ferdinand Marcos Jr., continues to oppose her bid to post bail for her temporary liberty.

Yes, Colanggo is steadfast in his allegations, but that is understandable. A coldblooded killer who has pretenses of being a singer and composer is allowed to have his own recording studio in jail. He is pampered and treated like royalty by his guards.

A few days ago, the judge handling one case against De Lima announced he had decided to defer issuing a resolution on her petition for bail “for inconsistencies in the marking of evidence,” whatever that means. It must be noted here that four other judges, for one reason or another, have recused themselves from trying the two other cases against her.

This is clearly a travesty of justice. Immediately after assuming the presidency, Duterte announced he would “destroy De Lima.” He actually said he would use the testimonies of convicted criminals to send her to jail and keep her there.

Shortly thereafter, in February 2017, De Lima was arrested and has been in police custody since then.

What made Duterte all that fired up against her? 

When she was justice secretary, De Lima investigated then-mayor Duterte for the 17,000 killings attributed to the Davao Death Squad. It was a slight he has apparently neither forgotten nor forgiven.

That must have been the reason Vitaliano Aguirre, the justice secretary serving under the Duterte administration, allegedly coerced Rafael Ragos, then officer-in-charge of the Bureau of Corrections, into implicating De Lima in the illegal drug trade. That at least was what Ragos claimed when he retracted his testimony.

Even Persida Acosta, head of the Public Attorney’s Office, seems to be part of the  conspiracy. She is taking the cudgels for some of the drug lords who were pitted against de Lima. 

Isn’t Acosta’s mandate to provide legal assistance to those who cannot afford a lawyer, not to criminals who are millionaires many times over. Was it her purpose to warn these criminals against self-incrimination? These people are serving life sentences and nothing they say or do in the course of their testimonies can make their situation any worse. But so what if they inadvertently admitted to have committed other crimes in the course of their testimonies? Isn’t that the government’s objective, to solve crimes and uncover the perpetrators? It looks like Acosta is out to ensure that the drug lords stick to the script the government prepared for them.

Apart from Ragos, three other witnesses have retracted their testimonies against the former senator. One of these witnesses, Kerwin Espinosa, previously claimed he had given De Lima’s driver P8 million  in several tranches as drug protection money. He said later on that his testimony was dictated to him by high-ranking DOJ and PNP officials.

Here’s an interesting twist in this sordid tale: Espinosa was being held by the police for drug charges, but then-DOJ prosecutor Aristotle Reyes – currently a regional trial court judge – threw out the case, saying there was insufficient evidence to proceed with the trial.

De Lima’s case has an uncanny similarity to that of Sergei Magnitsky, the Russian tax lawyer who exposed a massive tax fraud involving high government officials, prominent among them were law enforcement officers. He ended up being charged with the same crime he had uncovered and by the same people who had committed it.

It is ironic that Magnitsky and De Lima were both in jail on charges they have devoted their professional life to fight.

De Lima’s case has become a cause célèbre all over the civilized world. Members of parliaments from Canada, Great Britain, Australia, and the European Union have filed demands for her release, citing a clear violation of her rights. A number of US congressmen and senators have done the same.

But let the former senator speak for herself. In a statement to the media, De Lima described her unjust detention as the result of “the greatest frame-up, the grandest conspiracy of lies” by the Duterte regime.

According to her, the DoJ’s mandate is to uphold the law and serve the ends of justice. She added, “Once they lost the moral certainty to have me convicted beyond reasonable doubt, it is their duty to withdraw the cases.” – Rappler.com

Val A. Villanueva is a veteran business journalist. He was a former business editor of the Philippine Star and the Gokongwei-owned Manila Times. For comments, suggestions email him at mvala.v@gmail.com.

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