De Lima lawyers seek security for 7 more ‘recanting’ inmates
MANILA, Philippines — Former Sen. Leila de Lima has asked a Muntinlupa City court to transfer seven prisoners from an Occidental Mindoro penal farm to New Bilibid Prison (NBP) in Muntinlupa City to protect them from purported threats after they expressed their intention to retract their accusations against her.
The inmates at Sablayan Prison and Penal Farm, including convicted drug lord Wu Tuan Yuan, also known as Peter Co, told the court in a Nov. 17 letter they hoped to be given the chance to recant their testimonies against De Lima “in the interest of truth and justice.”
“We no longer desire to live our lives with the knowledge that we allowed ourselves to become pawns or instruments of injustice… If given the chance [to recant], it will be our way of expressing our sincerest apologies to Senator De Lima and her family,” the inmates said in the letter addressed to Judge Gener Gito of the Muntinlupa City Regional Trial Court Branch 206.
On Nov. 13, De Lima was freed on bail after more than six years in police custody on charges of taking bribes from drug lords in NBP when she was justice secretary.
She is still facing a third and last drug case after the first two charges were dismissed.
The group of seven persons deprived of liberty (PDLs) would potentially join a growing list of government witnesses who have taken back their claims against the former senator, including former Bureau of Corrections chief Rafael Ragos, confessed drug lord Rolan “Kerwin” Espinosa, and De Lima’s former aide Ronnie Dayan.
In October, two other accusers, former police officers Rodolfo Magleo and Nonilo Arile, among the 13 criminal convicts who allegedly took part in the Bilibid drug trade, wrote a letter to De Lima expressing remorse and their intention to formally recant their allegations. But the pair’s recantation has not been formalized in court.
On Tuesday, De Lima’s lawyers filed a manifestation with an urgent motion to issue an order to transfer custody of the seven inmates to the national penitentiary for their own security and to confirm their disavowal of their testimonies against the former senator.
“Part of our prayer is the opportunity to clarify what they want to recant,” De Lima’s lawyer Bonifacio Tacardon told the Inquirer on Wednesday.
“What really happened? How were they coerced, who coerced them, who threatened their lives? How were they convinced to post statements against former Sen. Leila de Lima?” he said.
Besides Co, the letter, which was received by De Lima’s lawyers on Nov. 20, was signed by German Agojo, Tomas Doniña, Jaime Patcho, Engelberto Durano, Jerry Pepino, and Hans Anton Tan.
Four of them, Co, Patcho, Tan, and Durano had testified against De Lima during the trial while Pepino and Agojo had issued sworn statements, Tacardon said, adding that he had yet to validate whether Doniña had made a similar statement.
According to the PDLs’ letter, they had been forced to participate as witnesses against De Lima as their lives and families were being threatened.
“We are aware that by doing this, we are risking our lives and the safety and security of our families,” the letter read in part.
“At this point, we would like to state that our participation as witnesses in the drug cases against former DOJ (Department of Justice) Secretary De Lima was vitiated by undue compulsion and influence, and thus, any judicial statement made by us is void of lack of consent,” it added.
Prior to becoming witnesses, the seven said they had experienced “unimaginable” threats, including a “series of attempts” on their lives as they transferred facilities.
Who’s behind threats
But Tacardon noted that the letter did not name the officials behind the coercion and threats.
He said the team was also looking to confirm whether the prosecution was aware that the testimonies made by the seven had been false.
“It is also important for us to know if the panel of prosecutors of the [DOJ] were aware that their testimonies were false. Why this is important to us is because we recall the case of [Ragos],” Tacardon explained.
“Before he was called to the witness stand, he clearly stated to [the prosecutors]: ‘Don’t expect me to come up with a seamless testimony when everything is a lie.’ The panel of prosecutors knew this and yet he was still called as a witness. Is this the same as the other PDLs that will recant now?” he said.
In October 2022, Ragos took the witness stand to recant his accusations against De Lima and testified that then Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II had coerced him into signing three prepared affidavits against her in 2016 and 2017.
Aguirre has strongly denied the claim.
Tacardon also reiterated that the legal team was planning to file a case against those involved in the “persecution” of De Lima.
The latest recantation, once proven in court, could be used to strengthen their case, he said.
“These PDLs, these supposed witnesses, are in the center of everything,” Tacardon said.
“Yes, we are planning to study the possibility of filing a case against those who are involved in the persecution of Sen. Leila de Lima, and we would find basis in the recantation… But we are waiting for the real story. I cannot confirm if we have a basis [with this letter],” he said.