MANILA, Philippines – Ten months since she was arrested and jailed for the charges of illegal drug trading, Senator Leila de Lima has not been arraigned before any of the 3 branches of the Muntinlupa Regional Trial Court (RTC) handling her cases.
Branches 204, 205, and 206 have all issued warrants of arrest against De Lima, and the Supreme Court (SC) has ruled that the Muntinlupa RTC has jurisdiction over her cases. But the cases are stuck at the pre-arraignment level because the Department of Justice (DOJ) is still amending its information.
The amendments heed the advice of the SC ruling. From charging her of trading illegal drugs under Section 5 of Republic Act 9165, the DOJ wants to charge her now with “attempt or conspiracy” to trade illegal drugs under Section 26(b) of the law.
The DOJ panel has filed motions to amend before all 3 branches. (READ: From power to prison: How 2017 changed the life of De Lima, family)
“We are back to square one. They should conduct a new preliminary investigation, back to DOJ. Meanwhile, palayain muna nila ako (set me free),” De Lima told Rappler in a letter.
Amendment or substitution?
While De Lima acknowledged that it’s normal for prosecutors to amend cases they file in courts, she said that what the DOJ is doing is substitution and not amendment.
“They are charging a different case. It means their case was defective, it has no basis,” De Lima said.
The DOJ has not responded to Rappler’s request for comment. But in their reply to De Lima’s opposition filed before Branch 205, the DOJ panel said that their new allegations do not “in any way change the theory of the Prosecution.”
The amended information also does not violate her substantial right, said the DOJ. “It will not be detrimental to accused De Lima as this will neither cause surprise to her nor will it affect the form of defense that may be available to her.”
When the SC voted 9-6 to uphold the trial court’s jurisdiction, and effectively kept De Lima in jail, Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio called it “one of the grossest injustices ever perpetrated in recent memory in full view of the Filipino nation and the entire world."
Carpio said the information does not present all elements of drug trading, but the ponencia of Associate Justice Presbitero Velasco Jr said the DOJ can always fix their information, which is what they are doing.
Velasco also said that the prosecution can amend without the need to set her free first. "The trial court can simply order that another complaint or information be filed without discharging the accused from custody," he wrote.
“Velasco aided the prosecution; he might as well volunteer for the panel because he’s teaching them how to do it,” De Lima said. (READ: Justice Caguioa: If it happened to De Lima, it can happen to anyone)
De Lima wanted Velasco to inhibit from her case, accusing the justice of once pushing for the acquittal of drug convict German Agojo, one of the witnesses against her. Velasco has denied the accusation, pointing out that he filed and later withdrew a libel complaint against Rappler editor-at-large Marites Vitug, who wrote the insider account on the Agojo case that De Lima is citing.
Velasco and De Lima also have history. Velasco penned the resolution that upheld the temporary restraining order (TRO) which would have allowed former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo to leave the country in November 2011, but it was the TRO that De Lima defied as justice secretary. Arroyo spent the next 4 years in jail.
De Lima also believes that the shakeups inside the New Bilibid Prison are related to her.
Drug trading has returned to the jails, President Rodrigo Duterte and Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre admitted themselves. There was a stabbing incident that killed an inmate there last July.
There were threats of inmates recanting their testimonies against De Lima if they are moved back to the maxiumum security compound. And the Bureau of Corrections (BuCor) has not had a boss for 5 months since Benjamin delos Santos resigned last July. (Duterte recently said PNP chief Ronald "Bato" dela Rosa will be taking over BuCor once he retires from the PNP.)
“That’s what they get for striking a deal with inmates, now they’re in a mess. Now it’s quid pro quo,” De Lima said. (READ: Dela Rosa wants to clean up Bureau of Corrections)
Early in December, Rappler received tips that inmate Jaybee Sebastian would plead guilty to the case before Branch 206. Sebastian was the only inmate who was charged along with De Lima, others were dropped and turned witnesses.
De Lima’s lawyers said they are not aware of such a development.
“That’s not gonna surprise me,” De Lima said. Just like it didn’t surprise her when the DOJ dropped in November former BuCor officer-in-charge Rafael Ragos from the case before Branch 204.
The DOJ also plans to turn him into a witness.
De Lima assigned Ragos to the BuCor. She also appointed Franklin Bucayu as BuCor Director. Ronnie Dayan was his body guard and supposed partner. Dayan admittedhe endorsed Ragos and Bucayu to De Lima.
All of these men are her co-accused; so far only Ragos has been dropped. These men were her trusted men. “Now, I don’t know anymore,” De Lima said.
‘Minadali nila, they were under pressure. Pinilit kasi nilang maging drug case, pinilit nilang maging non-bailable (They rushed it, they were under pressure. They forced it to be a drug case, to be a non-bailable charge),” De Lima said.
De Lima’s lawyers insist that what the DOJ is accusing her of is only a case for direct bribery, which is under the jurisdiction of the Ombudsman, and would later on be under the anti-graft court Sandiganbayan. That’s what they were petitioning at the Supreme Court.
“Towards December 2016, I heard Aguirre saying in television interviews that maybe the case could be filed at the trial court, not Sandiganbayan. When I started hearing that, I thought ‘ah tutuluyan nila ako (they’ll really finish me off).’ I had to prepare my family,” De Lima said.
Direct bribery is a bailable charge. And De Lima was hoping for a "fairer" prosecution by Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales. They are still appealing before the SC.
But the catch is, Morales is retiring in 7 months.
“That’s the dilemma. I trust Morales and her sense of fairness, that I would be given a fair chance. Pero kung iba na (Under a different Ombudsman), I would not be as optimisitc,” De Lima said.
Duterte would appoint the next Ombudsman. Legal circles are abuzz with a couple of names of appointees, one of whom is Solicitor General Jose Calida who also wants De Lima jailed.
“It’s really a dire scenario, but I go on with my faith,” De Lima said.
The senator added: “I will be vindicated, but I just don’t know when.” – Rappler.com