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Vindication for former President Arroyo

FORMER President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo has finally been cleared of a case which had kept her under detention for several years. The case was scuttled by the Sandiganbayan Fourth Division when it granted demurrers to evidence filed by the former President, her husband Jose Miguel Arroyo, and former Commission on Elections Chairman Benjamin Abalos.

The demurrers were motions filed by the defense after the prosecution had rested its case. The motions said the prosecution had charged that a $329-million National Band Network (NBN) deal with China’s ZTE Corp. was disadvantageous to the Philippine government and the accused had conspired to have the contract awarded. The fact is that President Arroyo herself had cancelled the contract in 2007, even before the filing of the case.

President Arroyo had also been charged in another case with misuse of funds of the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office. In this case, Arroyo’s lawyers had also filed motions for demurrer of evidence and when the Sandiganbayan First Division rejected their motion, they went to the Supreme Court, which upheld their position and proceeded to dismiss the case.

Former President Arroyo has been vindicated in these cases, her lawyers said. It has all ended well. But it took over four years during which the former President was deprived of her liberty, unable to attend the sessions of the House of Representatives to which she had been elected, allowed only limited time to celebrate Christmas with her family and friends in her Quezon City home. Because of her medical situation, she was granted hospital detention at the V. Luna General Hospital, but it was detention nevertheless.

The presumption of innocence in all criminal prosecutions is one of our basic rights as citizens, as spelled out in the Bill of Rights in our Constitution. All are entitled to bail except in cases which are punishable by reclusion perpetua where evidence of guilt is strong. With the law providing that plunder of P50 million and above is punishable by reclusion perpetua, President Arroyo was detained without bail.

Former President Arroyo has indeed been vindicated with the dismissal of the cases against her. But it should not take four years for such vindication. The Supreme Court or Congress should be able to institute reforms in legal procedures, so that an accused – official or otherwise – will be given the greatest possible leeway to enjoy the constitutional right to presumption of innocence until the contrary is proved.