The Supreme Court (SC) on Tuesday issued a status quo ante order stopping for 30 days the plunder trial of former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo before the anti-graft court Sandiganbayan.
The case involves the allegedly anomalous disbursement of the intelligence fund of the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office (PCSO) amounting to P365 million during Arroyo’s term as President.
The SC also ordered the Sandiganbayan 1st Division to comment on Arroyo’s petition for certiorari, which was filed by her legal counsel, former Solicitor-General Estelito Mendoza.
In her 124-page petition, Arroyo asked the High Court to schedule oral arguments on the case and suspend the plunder trial.
She also asked the SC to set aside and nullify resolutions of the Sandiganbayan dated April 6, 2015 and September 10, 2015, which dismissed the “demurrer to evidence” she had filed.
Except for Arroyo, the Sandiganbayan has allowed her co-accused in the case, namely former PCSO General Manager and Vice Chairman Rosario Uriarte, former Board Directors Manuel Morato, Jose Taruc, Raymundo Roquero and Ma. Fatima Valdes, as well as former Commission on Audit (COA) Chairman Reynaldo Villar, to post bail for their temporary release.
Because of this, Arroyo argued that the denial by the Sandiganbayan of her “demurrer to evidence” is contrary to the principle of “equal justice” since there was no enough evidence to pin her down in the case.
She further argued that if the 637 documentary exhibits of the prosecution and testimonies presented by the prosecution’s 21 witnesses will be made as basis, they have failed to prove that she has “pocketed” even a single centavo from the PCSO fund, which was allegedly anomalously utilized.
The former leader earlier contested before the High Court the Sandiganbayan’s denial of her bail, saying the anti-graft court committed grave abuse of discretion when it denied her bail application on the ground that the evidence of her guilt is strong.
Arroyo, however, insisted that she is still entitled to bail.
She argued too that her continued detention has resulted in impairment of her health, and she is demonstrably not a flight risk.
The 68-year-old Arroyo, currently detained at the Veterans Memorial Medical Center in Quezon City, is suffering from degenerative bone diseases. She has had three major cervical spine surgeries; and was having difficulty in ingesting food, which has led to her significant weight loss.
Arroyo’s lawyers filed a petition for bail in January 2013 and a supplemental motion for bail in October of that year.
In November 2013, however, the Sandiganbayan denied her bail petition, prompting Arroyo in February 2014 to seek reconsideration, which was turned down in April 2014.
In her eight-page supplemental motion for reconsideration submitted by her lawyers in February 2014, Arroyo claimed that she deserves temporary freedom because of her health condition.
Her lawyers said their petition should be taken separately from their earlier bail petitions, which attacked the “weakness and insufficiency of the prosecution’s evidence.”
They added that Arroyo is “not a flight risk.”
“The possibility of President Arroyo’s escape, bearing in mind her official and social standing and her other personal circumstances, is remote, if not nil,” the petition read.
UN ruling binds Malacañang
A ruling of the United Nations in Arroyo’s favor binds Malacañang, but not the courts, a retired Supreme Court justice told The Manila Times also on Tuesday.
The ruling made two weeks ago by the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention said the former Philippine leader’s continued detention is illegal and, therefore, she should be released immediately.
According to the retired magistrate, who agreed to be interviewed on condition of anonymity, the UN ruling is binding with the executive department since the Philippines was a signatory to the UN Convention on Civil and Political Rights.
While it is true that it does not bind the courts in the Philippines, the retired justice said, it is the duty of the executive department to inform the courts of such a ruling.
“The UN ruling is non-binding with the courts in the Philippines but it binds the executive department. Therefore, it is the duty of the executive to inform the courts of such a ruling,” the retired justice pointed out.
It was argued that the courts can be informed only through its representative in the courts, the prosecutor, who is part of the executive department.
The UN ruling prompted Arroyo to seek refuge with the SC in connection with the plunder case filed against her and several others before the Sandiganbayan for approving the release of more than P365 million in Confidential Intelligence Funds of the PCSO during her term as President.
“Mrs. Arroyo was denied bail on grounds that are not compatible with international law; she did not benefit from the presumption in favor of bail; she was denied bail exclusively on the basis of the alleged strength of evidence against her; measures alternative to pre-trial detention were not considered and there were undue delays in considering her bail position in the proceedings against her as a whole,” the ruling said.
“Accordingly, the UN recommended the reconsideration of Mrs. Arroyo’s application for bail in accordance with the relevant international human rights standards.”