MANILA (3rd UPDATE) — A Muntinlupa court has acquitted detained Sen. Leila de Lima in 1 of the 3 drug cases she is facing but denied her bid to junk a second case involving former bodyguard Ronnie Dayan.
The ruling came just days before De Lima marked four years of detention at the Philippine National Police headquarters in Camp Crame. Two other cases are pending against her, but the vocal administration critic has long denied involvement in the drug trade, saying the charges were political.
Muntinlupa Regional Trial Court Branch 205 Judge Leizel Aquiatan on Wednesday issued two rulings on the demurrers filed by De Lima. A demurrer is essentially a motion to dismiss a case due to insufficient evidence.
Aquiatan granted De Lima’s demurrer to evidence in the case involving Jad Dera, who supposedly ran the illegal drug trade in Bilibid with the detained senator.
Prosecution had alleged that Dera received money from convicted drug lord Peter Co on behalf of De Lima, but the court found no connection between Dera and the senator.
“But no link between the two accused was proven, and thus, it cannot be concluded that they agreed to engage in illegal drug trading,” the court said.
Witnesses previously testified that the money Dera supposedly received from Co was for a kidnap-for-ransom case involving Co’s niece, which did not involve the senator.
The grant of the demurrer amounts to an acquittal on the part of De Lima but not for Dera, who may still be found guilty by the court for supposedly participating in the alleged drug trading.
“In the absence of conspiracy, Dera is responsible only for the consequences of his acts,” it added, denying Dera’s demurrer.
He was, however, allowed to post bail of P500,000.
Meanwhile, the same court denied De Lima’s demurrer and motion to post bail in the case involving Dayan.
Dayan was tagged for allegedly receiving money from former Bureau of Corrections officer-in-charge Rafael Ragos.
But the defense pointed out that it was Ragos, based on the testimonies of prosecution witnesses, who received money from various illegal sources, changing his testimony several times in order to be exonerated.
In denying De Lima’s demurrer, the court cited Ragos’ and his aide NBI intelligence agent Jovencio Ablen’s testimonies claiming they delivered money to Dayan in De Lima's house and De Lima supposedly received it from Dayan without protesting.
It also gave weight to statements by inmates that the funds involved supposedly came from the illegal drug trade despite De Lima's objection that these were hearsay or not based on their personal knowledge.
The court instead treated their statements as "independently relevant statements" — not to prove that the statements were true but only that they were made — which the court said may form part of circumstantial evidence.
The court applied the concept of implied conspiracy, saying De Lima allegedly "enabled NBP inmates to resort to illegal drug trading" supposedly to fund her senatorial campaign in exchange for benefits while she "appears to have profited" by receiving money collected inside NBP.
“The fact that they did not investigate the source of the money given to them can reasonably lead to the conclusion that they already know that the money came from the illegal drug dealings from inside the NBP since they knew that Ragos was then the OIC,” the court said.
The court wants De Lima to explain the 10 million pesos she supposedly received from Ragos and certain details about the surprise 2014 raid at the New Bilibid Prison where the Criminal Investigation and Detection Group and the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency were excluded, among other issues.
“These facts, if unrebutted, the same is prima facie sufficient to support a verdict of guilt against the accused,” the court said.
Under the rules, De Lima and Dayan will be required to present evidence in their defense.
The court also denied both their bail pleas, saying the evidence of guilt is strong.
In a press conference Wednesday night, one of De Lima's lawyers denied the claim that De Lima received money from Ragos through Dayan, calling it a "total lie” and saying the court took the inmate-witnesses' statements at face value.
DE LIMA WELCOMES RULING, SAYS EVIDENCE VS HER BASELESS
De Lima, in a statement, said she considers the court's decision a "victory" even as two more cases are pending against her.
Despite the denial on her demurrer to evidence and motion for bail, she said her camp still believes that the pieces of evidence against her were weak and made up.
"Puro laway lang ang basehan... Ang kaso laban sa akin ay conspiracy to engage in illegal drug trading. Pero ang lumabas sa mga pagdinig, walang ebidensya ng kasunduan," said the senator.
(The evidence is just based on their words. The case against me is conspiracy to engage in illegal drug trading but what they showed during the hearings was the absence of any collusion.)
"Walang kahit isang testigo na nagpatunay na ako at ang aking kapwa akusado ay nakipagsabwatan sa mga drug lords para maglako o magbenta ng ilegal na droga sa Bilibid," she added.
(There were no witnesses that proved I and the co-accused conspired with drug lords to sell illegal drugs in Bilibid.)
De Lima added that her legal team is already looking into the possibility of filing a motion for reconsideration for the court's decision on Criminal Case No. 165.
"Ang labang ito ay hindi lang personal kong laban, kundi laban ng sambayanan... Mula't sapul, ang mga kasong ito ay ginagamit lamang na paraan para patahimikin ako at gambalain ang aking paglilingkod sa bayan bilang senador."
(This fight is not only personal since it is also the fight of our countrymen. Since the beginning, this case has been used to silence me and interfere with my public service as a senator.)
The Department of Justice (DOJ), meanwhile, said the agency respects the decision of the court.
"The DOJ has always trusted in the good judgment and impartiality of the trial court," Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said in a statement.
"We believe that the honorable judge has diligently examined and weighed all the evidence presented by the prosecution before making a determination as to its sufficiency or insufficiency, and for this reason we reiterate our utmost respect," he added.
In both drug cases, De Lima’s defense team cited testimonies by former Philippine National Police Criminal Investigation and Detection Group chief retired general Benjamin Magalong, now the Baguio City Mayor, officials from the National Bureau of Investigation, Anti-Money Laundering Council and the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency, as well as inmates supposedly clearing De Lima of any involvement in the drug cases.
A full copy of Aquiatan’s order in the case involving Dayan is not yet available as of writing.
The prosecution is still presenting evidence in the 3rd case in another Muntinlupa court involving Dayan, Dera, ex-BuCor Director Franklin Bucayu, Joenel Sanchez, Wilfredo Elli, and the late high-profile convict Jaybee Sebastian over an alleged conspiracy to commit drug trading amounting to P70 million.
De Lima has maintained the charges are politically motivated due to her opposition to President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs and criticism of his human rights record.