Another judge inhibits in last case of Leila de Lima
The new judge assigned to handle the remaining drug charge against Leila de Lima hasn’t even held his first hearing when he recused himself on Thursday, just hours after state prosecutors questioned his impartiality because he had acquitted the former senator in a similar case.
In a four-page order, Presiding Judge Abraham Joseph Alcantara of Branch 204 of the Muntinlupa City Regional Trial Court (RTC) granted the motion for voluntary inhibition filed by the Department of Justice (DOJ) “to erase any doubt as to the impartiality” of the court.
Alcantara’s court took over the third case against De Lima on June 30 from Branch 256 under Judge Romeo Buenaventura, who inhibited from further hearing the charges against her on June 15.
Buenaventura, who had denied De Lima’s bail petition, recused from the case two days after her lawyers filed a motion asking him to inhibit on grounds that he is the brother of the counsel for one of her accusers.
The government had filed three drug cases against De Lima, who has been detained for over six years for what she and her supporters say are trumped up charges instigated by former President Rodrigo Duterte in retaliation for her attacks against his brutal drug war that began when he was still mayor of Davao City.
‘Near identical case’
The 63-year-old former justice secretary, who also served as head of the Commission on Human Rights, was acquitted in two of the cases, the second by Alcantara on May 12 this year.
In their motion, the state prosecutors said that the second was a “near identical case” to the third and the judge may therefore “similarly decide” on it.
“Having adversely decided against the People in the previous Criminal Case No. 17-165, the undersigned Panel of Prosecutors cannot help but be apprehensive that the Honorable Presiding Judge will carry over his perceptions to the instant case,” said the prosecution panel led by Bulacan Provincial Prosecutor Ramoncito Bienvenido Ocampo.
Alcantara maintained that his decision on the second case “cannot be said to have traversed the line that divides neutrality and partiality.”
He added that his judicial opinions were not biased and were “based on the evidence presented and conduct observed” by him.
Alcantara said, however, that he decided to inhibit since doubts about a judge’s actions, “whether well-grounded or not,” had been raised.
“That way, he or she avoids being misunderstood, his or her reputation for probity and objectivity is preserved. What is more important, the ideal of impartial administration of justice is lived up to,” he said in his order granting the prosecution’s motion.
In the present case, De Lima is being charged with using New Bilibid Prison (NBP) inmates to raise P70 million from 2013 to 2015 from the illegal drug trade within the penitentiary for her 2016 senatorial campaign.
In the second case, she was accused of receiving P10 million from the same illegal drug operation at NBP to fund her senatorial bid.
Alcantara ruled in favor of De Lima after the prosecution’s key witness, former Bureau of Corrections officer in charge Rafael Ragos, recanted his testimony and admitted that he was coerced into testifying against his former superior in the justice department.
Leila De Lima’s case for raffle again
The prosecution filed a motion with Branch 204 under Alcantara seeking to reverse this acquittal, casting doubts on Ragos’ recantation since his prior testimony was “solemnly taken.” There has been no word on when Alcantara would rule on the motion.
Granting the prosecution’s motion for voluntary inhibition means that the case would be reraffled to another Muntinlupa court for the second time this year.
It took 15 days before the case was transferred from Branch 256 to Branch 204.
De Lima’s third case has been heard by seven judges over the past seven years. Alcantara was supposed to hold his first hearing on the case today.
The first to handle it was Judge Patria Manalastas-De Leon of Branch 206 but she opted for early retirement in 2018.
The case was moved to Judge Lorna Navarro-Domingo, who inhibited herself a month later. It was then reraffled and landed on the lap of Judge Amelia Fabros-Corpuz in May 2019. She also opted to retire early.
Judge Gener Gito took over the case but was relieved in November 2019 and the case was transferred to Judge Antonietta Medina, who also inhibited as she was a classmate and “kumare” of De Lima.
In January 2020, Judge Grace Chavez-Ty, who served as interim presiding judge of Branch 256, handled the case before passing it on to Buenaventura, who heard the case from June 2020 until he recused himself last month.