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PALACE: TIME OF RECKONING

Arroyo pleads not guilty to electoral sabotage

Malacañang on Thursday said the “time of reckoning” had come after former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo pleaded “not guilty” to a charge of electoral sabotage—the second Philippine leader  in postwar history to be brought to court for criminal prosecution.

Wearing a neck brace and secured by wall-to-wall armed policemen, including sharpshooters, the 64-year-old Pampanga congresswoman entered her plea in the Pasay City Regional Trial Court (RTC) Branch 112, where she has been charged with rigging the 2007 senatorial elections.

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“Accountability escapes no one,” Edwin Lacierda, President Benigno Aquino III’s spokesperson, told reporters at the Palace shortly after Arroyo made the plea.

“This is the very foundation of the rule of law: the scales of justice should tip towards no one. (The Lady Justice’s) blindfold must continue to shield the system from being susceptible to the temptations of pandering to those with power and influence,” Lacierda said.

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Court officials recognized the historic nature of what transpired Thursday  inside the cramped courtroom which had been just another city court until a computer raffled to it the electoral sabotage case.

“This is a very historic event,”  court spokesperson Felda Domingo told the Inquirer. “This shows that no one is above the law. Whether you’re a president or not, you have to go through due process to which you are entitled.”

One step closer

Lacierda called on the people to closely follow the trial. “It is our goal to give her a day in court under a fair and impartial system of justice. At this time of reckoning, it is incumbent upon all of us to remain vigilant and observe this process as it unfolds,” he said.

“We must remain mindful of how in the past there were those who moved heaven and earth to prevent this day from arriving,” he added.

Lacierda also said Arroyo’s arraignment “brings us one step closer towards attaining closure to the many controversies that have hounded our country during the previous administration.”

Family beside her

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Wearing a cream pantsuit and a new hairdo, Arroyo alighted from a minibus and headed straight to the courtroom, walking through scores of policemen who had placed the compound under heavy security, blanketing almost every corner of the area with their presence.

“Not guilty,” Arroyo calmly said as she stood before Judge Jesus Mupas.

Outside the court, some 2,000 Arroyo supporters held a rally, carrying placards that read “We love GMA,” “Justice for GMA,” and “Di ka namin iiwan (We will never leave you).”

Arroyo’s husband, Jose Miguel “Mike” Arroyo, and her two sons, Mikey and Dato, sat by their mother’s side in the courtroom.

The former President’s lawyers, Benjamin Santos and Ray Montri Santos, waived the reading of the charges.

‘An injustice’

Mike Arroyo scoffed at the case against her wife, who he said felt “frustrated” at the turn of events.

“There is no case against her,” he told reporters.  “It’s not bad to say 12-0. She feels (this) is an injustice to her.”

He was referring to prosecution allegations that his wife directed officials of Maguindanao province in 2007 to ensure a 12-0 victory for the administration candidates in the senatorial elections that year.

Back to hospital

Arroyo’s frustration at her being hauled to court was not evident during her brief appearance, as she flashed a smile and waved at photographers and cameramen who had waited for her arrival at the Pasay City Hall.

Arroyo entered her plea at around 8:55 a.m. before security personnel whisked her back to Veterans Memorial Medical Center in Quezon City,  where she has been under hospital arrest for nearly two months.

She is suffering from a degenerative bone condition and compression of nerves which doctors found after the pain in her neck worsened in June last year.

Twist of fate

Arroyo is the second former Philippine leader to be charged in court for a crime after Joseph Estrada, who was arrested on plunder charges in April 2001, four months after he was ousted from the presidency.

Convicted in 2007 and sentenced to 40 years in jail, Estrada was detained for more than six years before Arroyo—ironically the President then—pardoned him,  citing among other reasons that he had reached 70 years old.

Domingo noted the odd twist of fate for Arroyo, considering that the electoral sabotage charge lodged against her was a relatively new offense under a law  she herself signed establishing the crime.

The law, Republic Act No. 9369, was enacted in January 2007, barely five months before the senatorial elections, when she purportedly committed the crime.

For Beleanda Gaspar, the court interpreter, Thursday was a “highlight” of her career in the judiciary spanning over three decades.

“It is very disheartening that I would meet a former President under these circumstances,” said Gaspar, who is turning 64 next month. “But I could say that this is the highlight of my career.”

“This is the first high-profile case of this court,” she added. “Before, our cases usually involved robbery and homicide.”

Pending resolutions

Mupas set a pretrial for April 19 when prosecutors are expected to submit a list of their witnesses.

The court deferred resolving two pleadings, including a defense request  for Arroyo to be under house arrest and a prosecution plea for her to be brought to a regular jail.

The court also has yet to rule on Arroyo’s request to attend the wake of her brother-in-law, former Representative Ignacio Arroyo, who died in London last month.

Sniper units

Security was tight for the arraignment. The City Hall, where the court is located,  and the adjacent Hall of Justice crawled with policemen on every floor.

At least two sniper units kept watch on the second floor terrace of the City Hall, while two policemen were seen at the windows on each of the building’s stairwell.

Authorities set up a yellow police line across the City Hall driveway to hold media people at the parking lot. Truncheon-wielding personnel formed a human barricade to prevent their line from being breached.

Police also sealed off to traffic a portion of FB Harrison Street in front of City Hall and kept Arroyo supporters away from the building.

Police had initially barred media coverage of the arraignment but later allowed four journalists representing Philippine print and wire agencies, television and radio stations and photographers to cover.

Ampatuan, Bedol

Arroyo is accused of ordering two local officials to tamper with the results of the 2007 elections in Maguindanao to reflect a victory sweep for administration bets.

The prosecution said it had a witness who claimed hearing Arroyo during a Palace dinner issue  a directive to then Maguindanao Governor Andal Ampatuan Sr. for all administration senatorial candidates to win in the province.

Arroyo’s coaccused—Ampatuan, who is himself is embroiled in another high-profile case involving the massacre of 57 civilians in 2009, and former Election Supervisor Lintang Bedol—are scheduled to be arraigned in late March. With reports from Nancy C. Carvajal and Nathaniel R. Melican, PDI; Tetch Torres and Jamie Elona, INQUIRER.net

Originally posted at 08:58 am | Thursday, February 23,  2012

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TAGS: 2007 elections, Arroyo Trial, courts, electoral sabotage, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, Government, Judiciary, Politics, poll fraud
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