When the wheels of justice grind

Leila de Lima is freed on bail. —PNA PHOTO

EDITOR’S NOTE: The detained former senator Leila de Lima was granted bail by Judge Gener Gito today, Nov. 13. Gito is the presiding judge of Mandaluyong City Regional Trial Court Branch 206, which will now hear the last of the three drug cases filed against her. The other two have been dismissed. CoverStory is republishing this report written by Rosario A. Garcellano last January to refresh public memory on De Lima’s circumstances and the context in which she was held without bail since February 2017.

When she is released from prison, whether by virtue of bail, dismissal of her remaining two drug cases, or acquittal, Leila de Lima is clear on what she will do.

“I will make every second of my life as a free woman count. I will waste no time,” the former senator said last November in an email interview for a forthcoming book featuring her and five other Filipino women of substance. The book, a project of the retired professor and newspaper commentator Asunción David Maramba, is due for publication in December.

De Lima, who will mark exactly six years as a prisoner at the Philippine National Police Custodial Center in Camp Crame on Feb. 24, is top of mind these days because of the Supreme Court’s decision last week to release plunder suspect Jessica “Gigi” Reyes from “vexatious restraint” while her case is being heard; whistle-blower Sandra Cam’s public apology to De Lima; and the swift trial and acquittal on drug charges of Justice Secretary Jesus Crispin Remulla’s eldest child.

These three developments have demonstrated that the constitutional right to a speedy trial is being upheld even if rarely in this country, and that, as claimed last year by recanting witnesses, testimonies that led to De Lima’s imprisonment were made under duress.

‘25th senator’

Jessica “Gigi” Reyes —PTV4 PHOTO

Gigi Reyes was in the slammer for almost nine years—a profound reversal of fortune for the lawyer so powerful that she came to be known as the “25th senator” when she was serving as chief of staff to then Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile. She was released from the Taguig City Jail’s Female Dormitory on Thursday night.

Reyes’ petition for the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus, which the Supreme Court’s First Division took note of in determining that her continuing detention is in violation of her constitutional right to be tried quickly on charges, was viewed by opposition Senators Aquilino Pimentel III and Risa Hontiveros as a legal mode by which De Lima can similarly be released. Theodore Te, a former spokesman for the high court, told the news website Rappler that it “widened the space and opportunities” for others similarly accused, such as De Lima, and “whose rights to a speedy trial are violated.”

Remulla also said as much in a terse Viber message to reporters (“The same reasoning may apply to Sen. De Lima’s case”), although Solicitor General Menardo Guevarra was not sufficiently convinced, saying that the Supreme Court’s decision should be applied on “a case-to-case basis.”

Regret and hope

Sandra Cam —PHOTO FROM pna.gov.ph

Cam, along with her son and another man charged, was recently acquitted of the 2019 murder of Vice Mayor Charlie Yuson III  of Batuan, Masbate. She admitted in a press conference last Wednesday that she was instrumental “in obtaining evidence used against” De Lima. 

She expressed regret  for what she said was her role in the congressional inquiries into De Lima’s alleged involvement in the trade in illegal drugs at the national penitentiary, as well as hope that her friend-turned-enemy-turned-friend-again would find justice soon. The hearings at the House of Representatives on the matter will be remembered for, among others, the startling misogyny of the supermajority toward an outspoken woman who had drawn Rodrigo Duterte’s avowed enmity for investigating the extrajudicial killings under his “war on drugs,” both as president and as mayor of Davao City.

A whistle-blower on the operations of the illegal numbers game jueteng and a former board member of the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office, Cam had accused De Lima of “illicit affairs” and threatened to make public sex videos allegedly featuring the latter. The videos were proven fake.

Cam is the latest in a string of De Lima accusers who have backtracked on their claims. She has so far made only a verbal turnaround. But at least three other witnesses against De Lima—Rafael Ragos, Kerwin Espinosa and Ronnie Dayan—issued sworn statements in 2022 that they were coerced and intimidated by state officials and agents into testifying against the then senator. 

It has yet to be shown if these affidavits made a dent on the two remaining cases against De Lima. In an Inquirer report,  her lawyer Boni Tacardon was quoted as saying that her petitions for bail would hopefully be resolved “by  February or March,” and that invoking the high court’s decision on Reyes’ case to apply to the former senator’s case might get in the way of the resolution of the petitions. 

Barely 3 months

De Lima’s incarceration again drew public attention when Juanito Jose Remulla III was acquitted of possession of illegal drugs on grounds of reasonable doubt. The ruling of the Las Pinas City Regional Trial Court (RTC) Branch 197 elicited wonderment from the public, as well as wry references to a “Boss Daddy” that made a swift trial possible in this country where accused persons, especially among the impoverished, languish behind bars for many years, even decades. 

The justice secretary had vowed no intervention in his 39-year-old son’s case. The decision to acquit was issued on Jan. 6, or a week shy of three months since the complaint was filed on Oct. 14, 2022,

It’s one down for the younger Remulla, who is still charged with importation of illegal drugs and violation of the customs law at the Pasay City Prosecutor’s Office. It’s also one down for De Lima, whose two remaining cases, along with her petitions for bail, are being heard at the Muntinlupa City RTC Branches 204 and 256. The third case has long been dismissed for insufficiency of evidence.

Pork barrel scam

It’s been said that the wheels of justice may grind exceedingly slow but they grind exceedingly fine. As is demonstrated time and again, the pace is quicker and finer for some, and interminably slower for others. 

The P10-billion pork barrel scam that made for continuing hot stuff in the news during the administration of President Benigno Aquino III resurfaced as talking point in the course of Gigi Reyes’ temporary release from prison. 

Reyes, along with her former boss Enrile and businesswoman Janet Lim Napoles, is charged with the nonbailable crime of plunder in connection with the alleged misuse of Enrile’s pork barrel, or Priority Development Assistance Fund. She is accused of receiving in Enrile’s behalf P172.83 million in kickbacks for the allocation of his pork barrel to fake nongovernment organizations (NGOs) supposedly led by Napoles.

Senators Jinggoy Estrada and Bong Revilla and their respective responsible officers were similarly charged with plunder for supposedly channeling P183.79 million and P124.5 million of their pork barrel, respectively, to the Napoles NGOs.

How long ago that seems. 

Enrile, 98 and now President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s chief legal counsel, has long been released on bail for “humanitarian reasons.” Estrada is likewise out on bail after spending three years behind bars. Revilla, also incarcerated for a time, has been cleared of the plunder charge as well as the accompanying graft charges.

Revilla’s chief of staff, Richard Cambe, along with Napoles, was convicted of plunder. Cambe was sentenced to life imprisonment and was committed to the national penitentiary where he died of an apparent stroke in April 2021. Estrada’s deputy chief of staff, Pauline Labayen, fled the country early on and remains at large.

Both Revilla and Estrada are back in the Senate.

See: The enduring case of De Lima, PDL

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