Philippines Supreme Court dismisses charges against former president

The court ordered Gloria Macapagal Arroyo freed after almost five years of hospital detention. Ms. Arroyo was president of the Philippines from 2001 to 2010. 

Reuters/ File
Former Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo (C), detained on corruption charges, is granted furlough from hospital arrest to vote in the national elections in her hometown of Lubao, Pampanga province, north of Manila in the Philippines, on May 9, 2016. On Tuesday, the Philippine Supreme Court dismissed a plunder case Arroyo and ordered her freed immediately after nearly five years of hospital detention.

The Philippine Supreme Court on Tuesday dismissed a plunder case against former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and ordered her freed immediately after nearly five years of hospital detention – a decision the grateful ex-leader indicated can help her deal with those who "through self-serving interpretation and implementation of the law" made her suffer.

The 15 justices voted 11-4 to grant Arroyo's petition seeking to dismiss the case before the special anti-graft Sandiganbayan court because of insufficient evidence, Supreme Court spokesman Theodore Te said. The case involved the alleged misuse of 366 million pesos ($7.8 million) from the state lottery agency, the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office.

Arroyo thanked the court "for finally stopping the persecution I had unjustly gone through the last five years" and President Rodrigo Duterte "for allowing due process to take its course."

She released a statement while still detained in the hospital, with the serving of the court's order for an immediate release apparently delayed by paperwork.

"It is my fervent hope that nobody else will suffer the persecution that had been levied on me through self-serving interpretation and implementation of the law," she said. "And that the disregard for truth for which I was made to suffer be dealt with accordingly at the soonest possible time."

Arroyo was detained under former President Benigno Aquino III, who accused her of corruption and misrule. Aquino's successor, Duterte, however, has said the plunder case against her was weak. She rejected his offer of a pardon because it would require that she be first convicted, preferring to fight the allegation.

Aquino has not commented on the court decision. But his former justice secretary and now Senator Leila de Lima said the Supreme Court seems to have assumed a role as a "trier of facts" in the case, supplanting the anti-graft court's assessment when it declared there was insufficient evidence of guilt.

"It's disappointing," she told reporters. "Why did they have to wait for the change in administration to issue that ruling?"

Jesus Dureza, who had been Arroyo's adviser on peace talks with communist and Muslim rebels told reporters: "I rejoice over this decision that has already given her what she rightly deserves which is justice."

Dureza said he congratulated Arroyo in a phone call and heard many supporters in the background as she spoke. Dureza was reappointed as peace talks adviser under Duterte, who added a number of Arroyo allies to his Cabinet.

Arroyo, 69, finished her tumultuous nine-year term in 2010 but was arrested the following year on an election fraud charge, for which she was allowed to post bail. She was later charged with plunder. Despite her detention, she was re-elected to Congress in May. She stayed in a hospital rather than a prison because of her degenerative lumbar spine disease and neck ailment that prompted her to use a wheelchair and brace in public.

A daughter of a former Philippine president and a classmate of former U.S. President Bill Clinton at Georgetown University, Arroyo had been a senator and vice president before suddenly rising to the presidency in 2001 after then-President Joseph Estrada was ousted in a revolt she helped lead.

She won regular elections in 2004 but her presidency was rocked by a series of corruption and vote-rigging scandals, including wiretapped conversations with an election official where some alleged she discussed ensuring her vote lead. Arroyo admitted talking to an election official and apologized for her "lapse in judgment" in making such a call but said the conversation occurred after the votes had been counted.

Raul Lambino, one of Arroyo's lawyers, said the mood turned jubilant in Arroyo's hospital room when word leaked that the country's highest court was set to strike down the only criminal case keeping her detained. Arroyo was smiling in the picture he took with her.

Another Arroyo lawyer, Ferdinand Topacio, said the Supreme Court "has once again proven itself to be the final bastion of justice and the rule of law."

The ruling, he said, validated the position of the Arroyo camp that the charges against her were "nothing more than disingenuous attempts at political persecution."

"We are reminding the Supreme Court that the Arroyo government left behind 1,206 victims of political killings and 206 victims of enforced disappearances among activists, peasants, and human rights workers," said Cristina Palabay, secretary general of the human rights group Karapatan. She said the 2009 massacre of 58 people, including 32 journalists, in the world's worst single killing of media workers, also happened during Arroyo's term.

Karapatan said "while plunderers and murderers like Arroyo are set free from prison, more than 500 political prisoners remain in jail, many of them arrested during the Arroyo regime."

Arroyo's response to the 2009 massacre was viewed as "a litmus test for whether Ms. Arroyo will tackle the country's culture of impunity for political killings, especially in a case that involves a close ally, the powerful Ampatuan clan," as The Christian Science Monitor reported at the time. 

As of late Tuesday, Arroyo was still detained. Her lawyers waited for a copy of the court order but left the Supreme Court without one at the end of office hours, saying they will just return on Wednesday.

Under the court's procedure, Lambino said, the Supreme Court sheriff has to give a copy of the order to the anti-graft court Sandiganbayan, whose sheriff would provide a copy to the police security office in charge of Arroyo's detention. The police security would then release her.

AP writer Jim Gomez contributed to this report.

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