A self-confessed drug lord and a former law enforcement officer last week recanted the testimony they gave against Senator Leila de Lima, highlighting the dangers of a justice system that can be weaponized for political reasons.
For five years, De Lima, former Justice secretary under the Aquino administration, has been detained on three separate drug charges, one of which was already dismissed in February 2021.
A second case, in which former chief of the Bureau of Corrections Rafael Ragos was a key witness, is still in court, partly on the strength of his testimony that he personally delivered a drug payout to De Lima’s bodyguard at her residence.
Now Ragos says in a sworn statement that his testimony was coerced by former Justice secretary Vitaliano Aguire II, who is now a commissioner at the National Police Commission. Aguirre, according to Ragos’ sworn statement, threatened to throw him in jail as well for being part of the illegal drug trade in the New Bilibid Prison—a charge that he said is untrue.
Ragos is the second witness to go back on his accusations against De Lima, the first being self-confessed drug lord Kerwin Espinosa.
The Department of Justice (DOJ), now under Secretary Menardo Guevarra, has played down the impact of the recantations, saying it still has a strong case against the jailed senator.
Without getting into the specifics of the cases, we beg to differ.
Whether the administration admits it or not, the recantations by Espinosa and Ragos have blown a gaping hole in the state’s credibility to prosecute a case without resorting to coercion of witnesses and the creation of false narratives. If these witnesses could be pressured into lying, who else was subject to the same treatment? Is this how the state measures the strength of its cases? How many people can it coral to bear false witness against the unfortunate target of its ire?
De Lima herself should be familiar with these tactics. As Justice secretary for the late President Benigno Aquino III, she was the tip of the spear that the government at the time wielded against its opponents.
As Justice secretary, De Lima in November 2011 blocked the departure of former President Gloria Arroyo from the Philippines, defying a temporary restraining order from the Supreme Court. Arroyo was finally released from detention after nearly four years—with none of the cases against her prospering.
What happened to De Lima when the political winds changed was wrong—just as what she did when she was Justice secretary was questionable.
Of all the line departments, the Department of Justice needs to be insulated from the politics of the day so that real justice may be done, and so that critics of those in power are not persecuted unjustly. Sadly, De Lima has proven in more ways than one that this is not the case.