MANILA (UPDATE) — Detained Sen. Leila de Lima rejected claims of former Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II that the recent retractions of witnesses against her were election-related and meant to influence the polls on Monday.
Speaking to ABS-CBN News inside the PNP Custodial Center where she has been held since 2017, De Lima said Wednesday her priority was to clear her name.
“More than my reelection bid, ang pinakagusto ko talaga, ang pinagdadasal ko, ay malaman ng tao ang totoo (what I really want most, what I pray for, is for the people to know the truth)," she said.
"People should know that I am not the person they are portraying me to be. For those who believe in the lies, to disabuse their mind. I want vindication."
“I need vindication in my lifetime, especially with the state of my family,” added the senator, whose ailing 89-year-old mother recently survived a bout with COVID-19 but has been bedridden for the past 3 years.
Accused of conspiracy to commit illegal drug trading, De Lima has been waging a 5-year battle against what she calls political persecution.
She has been acquitted in 1 of her drug charges but is facing 2 more.
Two high profile witnesses recently recanted their allegations.
Self-confessed drug lord Kerwin Espinosa last week retracted all his allegations against her. He initially claimed he gave De Lima a total of P8 million in drug payoffs.
Days after, former Bureau of Corrections officer-in-charge Rafael Ragos also took back his claim that he personally delivered P10 million to De Lima in her house in Parañaque City in 2012.
Aguirre questioned the timing of the retractions.
“It has everything to do with the elections, ‘yung timing na ‘yun. Because why? Sinabi ko na sa’yo e. Bakit sa inyong media lalabas ‘yang retraction na 'yan? (I told you. Why was the retraction made public through the media?)" he said on ANC Rundown Thursday.
"It should be filed in court because it’s where it’s most relevant. Bakit hindi idinaan sa husgado? Para magkaroon ng publicity at makaapekto sa simpatya ng mga botante. (Why was it not coursed through the court? So that there will be publicity that could affect the sympathy of voters.)"
De Lima ranked 24th in the latest Pulse Asia pre-election survey, landing outside the winning circle.
But the senator herself said she was also surprised at the timing of the retractions.
Why only now?
"That’s also my question actually. I’ve always thought time will come, sooner or later, some of them or hopefully all will retract. I’ve been praying for that, expecting na meron sa kanila magre-retract (expecting that someone will retract),” she said.
De Lima said she first heard about Espinosa’s supposed retraction way back in 2018.
“I saw it in the papers about CIDG saying nag-retract si Kerwin Espinosa. DOJ never confirmed. I was questioning if nag-retract, bakit nasa WPP (Witness Protection Program) pa?... If retraction covered testimony before Senate in 2016, walang sagot,” she said.
(I saw it in papers, about CIDG saying that Kerwin Espinosa retracted. I was questioning, if he retracted, why was he still in the WPP? If retraction covered testimony before Senate in 2016, there is no answer yet.)
But she said she expected Ragos to retract “much earlier.”
“In the course of the cross-examination, maraming butas sa kaniyang testimony (his testimony was full of holes.) He was uncomfortable, rather subdued. I knew him to be an assertive guy. He could not look at me in the eye,” she said.
AGUIRRE DENIES KNOWLEDGE OF PRESSURING RAGOS
In his affidavit executed on Saturday, Ragos accused Aguirre of coercing him to sign affidavits implicating De Lima at least twice — supposedly at a casino-hotel in Parañaque and another instance at a restaurant in Greenhills.
Aguirre on Wednesday issued a statement denying the allegations.
In a Zoom interview with the media on Wednesday afternoon, he said he could not recall whether those alleged meetings with Ragos happened.
Appearing on ANC Rundown Thursday, he said the meetings did not happen.
“It did not and I could not remember meeting him outside of my office,” he said.
“I could not remember that and I do not even know if there’s a Pancake House in where, Mandaluyong or San Juan?” he said of the supposed location of the second meeting.
Aguirre claimed it was Ragos who offered himself as a witness. The former Justice secretary said he left it to prosecutors to evaluate Ragos.
Former National Bureau of Investigation deputy director Reynaldo Esmeralda on Tuesday told ABS-CBN News he objected to making Ragos a witness because his claims that someone left money in his quarters and that an unidentified caller ordered him to deliver the money to De Lima were “highly improbable.”
Esmeralda called for a probe on previous and current DOJ officials who allowed Ragos to be discharged from the case.
De Lima’s lawyers pointed out in court that Ragos executed an affidavit in March 2017, shortly after being discharged, providing more details about the supposed caller and the nature of the money — allegedly De Lima’s share in the illegal drug trade.
Aguirre denied having knowledge of the dropping of the charge against Ragos and if it went to his office for automatic review, even if it happened during his stint in the justice department.
Aguirre resigned from the DOJ on April 5, 2018 after being hounded by controversies, including the dismissal of drug raps against Espinosa and alleged drug lord Peter Lim.
DE LIMA: NO CAPACITY TO COERCE WITNESSES
Instead, Aguirre accused De Lima of pressuring witnesses to retract. He went as far as saying that most retractions involved payment of money, although he admitted he did not have proof that Ragos was paid.
“Wala sa ngayon kasi bigla na lang susulpot 'yan after 5 years. You expect me to have an evidence na siya’y binigyan ng pera? Ang sinasabi ko 'yung experience ko as a lawyer. Ninety-nine percent ng lahat ng nagri-retract, binigyan ng pera,” he said.
(I have no evidence for now because he suddenly appeared after 5 years. And you expect me to have evidence that he received money? What I am talking about is my experience as a lawyer. Ninety-nine percent of all those who retract were given money.)
“Merong malaking conspiracy para 'yung mga witnesses against De Lima mapabaliktad. Umpisa yan kay Kerwin, kay Ragos, tapos I was informed na tinatarget nila sina Colanggo, si Valeroso, si Jonel at may iba pa, pati 'yung former driver ni De Lima, pinababaliktad din nila,” he claimed, referring to other witnesses who testified against De Lima.
(There is a grand conspiracy so that the witnesses against De Lima would flip. That started with Kerwin, Ragos. I was informed that they are also targeting Colanggo, Valeroso, Jonnel, and others, including the former driver of De Lima.)
The senator pushed back against allegations of coercing witnesses.
“How can I do that? I don’t have the capacity to do that. Under my situation? So unfair. I am the victim here. What coercion are they talking about? I don’t do that,” she said.
De Lima stressed she's detained in Camp Crame.
"What influence can I possibly have on Ragos to be able to extract his recantation, more so time its execution in time for the elections?" she said in a dispatch.
DE LIMA CHALLENGE TO DOJ
De Lima challenged Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra to find out the truth behind the allegations.
Even before the retractions, De Lima had long questioned the DOJ’s use of convicted witnesses against her, pointing out that some of them were either stabbed before testifying or given preferential treatment by being transferred to more comfortable detention cells once they agreed to testify against De Lima.
Various groups called for De Lima’s immediate release following the recantation of witnesses against her.
Former Supreme Court spokesperson Ted Te said Ragos’ claim is a “serious charge which taints the entire process of probable cause determination and the basis for the charges against her” and could even be basis for reasonable doubt, a ground for acquitting the accused in criminal cases.
But Prosecutor General Benedicto Malcontento on Tuesday insisted there would be no reinvestigation and no withdrawal of charges since the jurisdiction is already with the courts.
Guevarra said Monday he would refer the matter to the Ombudsman since former and current DOJ officials were involved.
While De Lima calls Guevarra’s move prudent, she said she wanted Guevarra to "dig deeper."
“Shouldn’t Sec Meynard, Sec. Guevarra be interested in finding out the truth? For God’s sake, I am a former SOJ (secretary of justice). Another SOJ is accused of being behind this,” she said.
“It’s not just him. It’s more than that. He is acting under the order of his principal,” she added, referring to President Rodrigo Duterte.
Prior to De Lima’s arrest, Duterte publicly said he would destroy her.
But Aguirre rejected this claim, saying it was meant to discredit the Duterte administration.
“Kung finabricate ko, it is your job as accused to prove that it was fabricated. Dapat pruwebahan mo sa husgado, not in the media. Hindi nakikialam dito ang Presidente,” Aguirre said.
(If I fabricated that, it is your job as accused to prove that it was fabricated. You should prove it before a court, not in the media. The President is not meddling with this.)
De Lima earned Duterte’s ire after launching a Senate probe into the killings under his war on drugs. When she was still chair of the human rights commission, she also investigated an alleged death squad in Davao City, where he was a longtime mayor.
Sending a dispatch from Camp Crame, the senator said she would file more charges against Aguirre before the Ombudsman.
This complaint includes a criminal complaint for allegedly offering false testimony, use of falsified documents, and grave coercion, she said.
"He has a history of coercing witnesses, manufacturing evidence or lying about evidence. Aguirre orchestrated the trial by publicity conducted against me both in the House of Representatives and the Senate," De Lima said.
The senator said Ragos' retraction would serve as strong evidence that Aguirre allegedly committed criminal offenses against her over the supposed trumped-up charges.
"I say it again – Aguirre is a certified liar. He’s an embarrassment to the whole justice system," she said.