MANILA (3rd UPDATE) — Former senator Leila De Lima was acquitted Friday on one of two remaining drug trafficking charges filed against her under the Rodrigo Duterte administration, putting her a step closer to freedom.
The Muntinlupa RTC Branch 204 acquitted De Lima of conspiracy to commit illegal drug trading "on the ground of reasonable doubt", about a year after former Bureau of Corrections officer-in-charge Rafael Ragos retracted his claim that he delivered drug money to her in 2012.
"A glorious day. This is the beginning of my vindication," De Lima said as policemen escorted her out of the court.
"May I say this to my oppressors: you can never crucify the truth."
De Lima, who has been detained since February 2017, is accused of taking money from inmates inside the New Bilibid Prison in exchange for allowing them to sell drugs while she was justice secretary from 2010 to 2015 under then-leader Benigno Aquino.
She and human rights groups say the charges were fabricated as payback for going after Duterte and his war on drugs, which his administration denies.
In a statement, De Lima said she had no doubt from the very beginning that she would be acquitted in all the cases filed against her "based on the merits and the strength of my innocence."
"That's already two cases down, and one more to go. I am of course happy that with this second acquittal in the three cases filed against me, my release from more than six years of persecution draws nearer. I am extremely grateful to all those who stood by and prayed for me all these years," she said.
De Lima thanked those who helped her in her fight to prove her innocence.
"Hindi ninyo ako iniwan. Hindi ninyo ako pinabayaan. Maraming salamat sa inyong paninindigan na balang araw ay makakamit ko ang katarungan, lalaya, at makakasama kayong muli," she said.
'NO EVIDENCE TO DRUG TRADING'
De Lima's lawyer, Atty. Filibon Tacardon, explained why the judge ruled in favor of De Lima.
"Ang sinabi ng hukuman ay although napatunayan na meron ngang illegal drug trading sa loob ng National Bilibid Prison, walang nakitang ebidensya o positive evidence ang prosecution na mag-uugnay kay Senator Leila De Lima at [kaniyang dating bodyguard na si] Ronnie P. Dayan sa sinasabing illegal na kalakaran ng droga," Tacardon said.
"Binanggit din ng hukuman na importante ang naging recantation ni Deputy Director Ragos dahil nung binawi niya itong salaysay eh nawala na nang tuluyan ang basehan ng akusasyon sa kanya at nagkaroon ng reasonable doubt sa akusasyon laban kay Senator De Lima," he added.
In April last year, Ragos retracted all his allegations against De Lima, claiming he was coerced by former Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II into implicating her. But Aguirre said a video recording purportedly disproves that Ragos was coerced.
The court said in its ruling, "Vigilance in eradicating illegal drugs cannot come at the expense of disregarding the rule of law."
Tacardon said De Lima teared up when she heard about the decision.
"Ang unang-unang reaksyon ni De Lima ay talagang siya ay napaluha, at nagpapasalamat siya unang-una sa Panginoong Maykapal, nagpasalamat siya sa hukuman, at nagpasalamat siya sa defense team, at hindi rin niya nakalimutan yung media," he said.
REMAINING LEGAL BATTLE
Another drug case against De Lima was junked by another Muntinlupa court in 2021.
Despite the acquittal, she will remain in jail as her trial in the other criminal case continues. She has applied for bail and is awaiting a judge's decision.
De Lima faces life in prison if convicted of the remaining charge.
This charge stemmed from convicted drug dealer Herbert Colanggo's accusation that he gave around P100 million to De Lima through her former aide Jonel Sanchez and Reynante Diaz, Colanggo's former talent manager.
CALLS FOR RELEASE
Rights groups called for de Lima's immediate release from detention.
Human Rights Watch Deputy Asia Director Phil Robertson said the acquittal demonstrated "the bogus, harassing nature of the charges".
"The authorities must not delay her release any longer and allow her to be reunited with her family, friends and supporters after six long years," Montse Ferrer, Amnesty International's interim deputy regional director for research, said in a statement.
"Today, truth reigned over fake news. Today, justice reigned over injustice," de Lima's youngest brother Vicente de Lima told reporters.
Lead prosecutor Sonny Ocampo said they respected the court's decision.
"But the options of the prosecution are still open. The legal remedies, we will be discussing it," he added.
Meanwhile, Justice Secretary Crispin Remulla told reporters, "The rule of law has prevailed and it just points out to us that the independence of the judiciary is a basic foundation of our democratic system. So it's good, it's good for us."
A UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention concluded in 2018 that de Lima's detention was "arbitrary given the absence of a legal basis" and that her right to a fair trial had not been "respected".
Since President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.'s election, there have been renewed calls from diplomats and rights defenders for de Lima to be released.
Before her arrest in 2017, De Lima had spent a decade investigating "death squad" killings allegedly orchestrated by Duterte during his time as Davao City mayor and in the early days of his 2016-2022 presidency.
She conducted the probes first while serving as the nation's human rights commissioner, then as justice secretary in the Aquino administration.
De Lima won a Senate seat in 2016, becoming one of the body's few opposition voices after Duterte's landslide victory. Duterte then accused her of running a drug trafficking ring.
Campaigning from behind bars, De Lima made a failed bid for re-election to the Senate last year.
— With reports from Jeff Caparas, ABS-CBN News; Agence France-Presse