Leila de Lima

[VANTAGE POINT] The muddled, befuddled saga of Leila de Lima

Val A. Villanueva

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[VANTAGE POINT] The muddled, befuddled saga of Leila de Lima

Illustration by Marian Hukom

Not only has de Lima’s case been protracted, the growing sentiment across the country is that is has been a persecution fraught with malice

Under public pressure, Muntinlupa Regional Trial Court Judge Romeo Buenaventura inhibited himself from trying the case against former senator Leila de Lima.

Judge Buenaventura made the announcement after three of the senator’s co-accused – Ronnie Dayan, Joenel Sanchez, and Franklin Bucayo – filed separate petitions asking that he recuse himself from the case because of conflict of interest.

The three petitioners claimed that it was the judge’s brother, lawyer Emmanuel Buenaventura, who prepared the testimony of Dayan implicating the senator in the drug trade. Dayan, who was the senator’s driver and aide, has since recanted his written deposition, saying it was coerced.

Neither Attorney Buenaventura nor Judge Buenaventura belied the allegation.

What the judge said was that he did not know his brother was playing a role in the case pending before his chamber, but just the same he was voluntarily recusing himself “to promote [public] confidence in the judicial system.”

In de Lima’s prosecution, it is precisely public confidence that is lacking in the judicial system. Not only has de Lima’s case been protracted, the growing sentiment across the country is that is has been a persecution fraught with malice.

How could the judge not have known that his brother was providing legal counsel to the accused who had turned state witness against de Lima, the principal defendant? He and his brother presumably live in the same city, although it is not readily known how close their residences are to each other. They must be going to the same family affairs and celebrations, unless they have cut off all ties because of some irreconcilable differences. The lawyer practices in the judicial circuit, in fact in the very chamber his brother the judge sit – as shown by his legal services to Dayan – although the brothers kept that a secret.

Congressman’s counsel too

The petitioners’ allegation in their plea for inhibition can be described in street parlance as “a contest judge having a dog in the race.”

Attorney Buenaventura also served as legal counsel to then-congressman Reynaldo Umali, who turned into a circus – in his capacity as chair of the House justice committee – the investigation into de Lima’s supposed culpability.

The congressman allowed the showing of a sex video in which the woman was identified by the gossipy lawmakers present during the hearing as de Lima. Umali and the other members of the panel also took turns asking Dayan, who had been subpoenaed, to describe to the last salacious detail how he and de Lima allegedly made love.

Judge Buenaventura threw out the motions of the accused because, according to him, the evidence against Dayan and her was strong.

Under the circumstances, de Lima and her co-accused stood no chance. There is a plot against her, hatched at the highest government level. Then-president Rodrigo Duterte ordered her incarceration and Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II implemented the order by getting convicts to execute testimonies against the senator.

Paid, coerced witnesses

Two other judges have dismissed the cases against de Lima, for the simple reason that the so-called witnesses had recanted their testimonies. These prosecution witnesses testified that they were paid, coerced, or promised lenient jail treatment since most of them are serving life sentences.

Judge Buenaventura, I hope, would be the last holdout in these cases. Whoever replaces him should show to the nation how justice should be served without fear or favor. De Lima does not deserve the injustices she suffers for reasons that we cannot discuss here without risking a libel case.

There is a concerted effort – a conspiracy, in legal terms – to imprison the senator using false testimonies.

As human rights commission chairperson and later as justice secretary, de Lima investigated the murders of suspected drug dealers and petty criminals in Davao City. The evidence indicated that then Mayor Duterte had ordered the killings. He himself confirmed this in a public statement.

Unfortunately for de Lima, she ran out of time before finishing the job. Duterte was elected president and, immediately after assuming power, he had her removed as Chair of the Blue Ribbon Committee which was looking into the killings, and subsequently filed those drug-related cases against her.

Apparently, de Lima was on the right track. Today, the International Criminal Court is poised to issue arrest warrants against Duterte and a number of other high officials in his administration for crimes against humanity.

It was earlier mentioned that two courts had found de Lima innocent of the charges against her.

Is there any reason for anybody to celebrate? Do the acquittals prove that the justice system in the country is working, as current Justice Secretary Crispin Remulla crowed a while back?

Must Read

EXPLAINER: How court decided on De Lima’s latest acquittal

EXPLAINER: How court decided on De Lima’s latest acquittal

The cases against de Lima were dismissed because the witnesses recanted their testimonies, and no way could she be convicted beyond reasonable doubt without any witness. But even if the witnesses remained steadfast, the courts should not have lent credence to their testimonies. After all, they are convicted criminals and what they say have little probative value.

Of course, the court cannot dismiss the proffer of evidence outright. There is still that need to determine the truth or falsity of the evidence, but six years is much too long for that purpose.

I was a newspaper editor once. Whenever allegations of government corruption broke out, an investigative reporter would be assigned to look into the matter. That same day, before the 4 pm deadline, the story would be on the editor’s desk containing the names of all the players with their participation to defraud the government described in detail. If it was a complicated case, the process may take a few days, even a week.

Of course, the court system works differently. Witnesses must be deposed and subjected to direct and cross examinations. Evidence – in the form of written statements and, in this digital age, also in the form of audio and video recordings – must be gathered and validated. 

It is understandable that the determination of guilt or innocence takes time, but six years of delay in de Lima’s case – without any conviction –  is inexcusable, especially when the accused is denied bail and languishing in jail. – Rappler.com

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