ON DISTANT SHORE, Human rights as an election issue,


The recantation by two prominent witnesses to government allegations that Sen. Leila de Lima accepted bribe money from convicted drug lords during her term as justice secretary should serve as a stark reminder to Filipinos on the importance of the human rights issue in this coming presidential elections.

In their sworn affidavits, self-confessed drug lord Kerwin Espinosa and former Bureau of Corrections officer-in-charge Rafael Ragos said the statements they gave prosecutors in 2016 were “false” and were made only because of deception, intimidation and coercion by government officials.

Espinosa, in his notarized counter-affidavit submitted last Thursday, April 28, stated through his counsel: “Any statement he made against the Senator are false and was the result of pressure, coercion, intimidation, and serious threats to his life and family members from the police who instructed him to implicate the Senator into the illegal drug trade.”

He said he signed the affidavit on Dec. 14, 2016 implicating De Lima to illicit drug business inside the Muntinlupa prison after police officials promised him his drug charges would be dismissed and after he was threatened that he would suffer the same fate as his father, Albuera, Leyte Mayor Rolando Espinosa Sr., who was killed by police just a few days earlier.
Ragos’ affidavit was even more damning to the government case against De Lima as the former BuCor official and NBI deputy director directly implicated former Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II in coercing him into “admit something that did not happen.”

In his affidavit executed in September 2016, Ragos was supposed to have stated that he, along with former NBI agent Jovencio Ablen Jr., delivered a black bag containing P5 million to Ronnie Dayan, the senator’s former bodyguard, and De Lima at the latter’s residence. The money allegedly came from the NBP illegal drug trade.

That same affidavit said he delivered a plastic bag containing another P5 million, also to Dayan and De Lima in the same place. He said in that affidavit that he was instructed by an “unknown person” ordering him to deliver those bags to De Lima’s residence and that the cash came from NBP inmate Wang Tuan Yuan alias Peter Co.

Why the top official of the Bureau of Customs could be ordered by an “unknown person” to deliver a bag of money was never explained by him or the prosecutors. But in the affidavit he signed and notarized last Saturday, April 30, he clarified that if that claim in the 2016 affidavit were true, he would have “immediately conducted an investigation and filed a case against the responsible individuals, instead of following the instruction of an unknown caller, NBP inmate Hans Tan, to deliver a package like an ordinary messenger.”

The story in the original affidavit was so incredulous and ridiculous, I cannot explain how a supposedly intelligent Aguirre, a valedictorian of his law class in San Beda that included President Rodrigo Duterte, could have concocted it and how the prosecutors didn’t even question it.

In 2020, convicted drug lord Vicente Sy also recanted his testimony that De Lima was involved in the illegal drug trade in the national penitentiary. He denied having met and having given P500,000 to De Lima for her senatorial campaign as he had stated in a House judiciary hearing.

Also in 2020, Anti-Money Laundering Council Artemio Baculi Jr. told the court under oath that De Lima was not involved in any suspicious transaction that would link her to the illegal drug trade. Baculi’s testimony trashed Aguirre’s claim that the DOJ had in its possession an AMLC report showing billions of pesos in drug money deposited in bank accounts allegedly belonging to De Lima.

The recantation by three prominent witnesses and the denial of Aguirre’s claim by a top AMLC investigator clearly further weakened the already wobbly case filed by the Department of Justice against Duterte’s harshest critic that has kept her in jail for more than five years now, without the benefit of hearings or trial.

Obviously, hearings have not been held because any defense attorney worth his salt could easily crash the government’s case that is full of holes. Can you imagine a state agency tasked with promoting justice and the rule of law believing the words of convicted drug lords against a sitting senator and former justice secretary?

It was obvious from the start that the government’s case against De Lima was based on concocted and coerced testimonies of these convicted drug lords who were apparently promised better treatment while incarcerated and pressured to tell tall tales under serious threats to their lives.

And it has been very obvious from the start that this was an ultimate act of revenge and an attempt by a sitting president to silence his foremost critic and a chilling message to other critics that the same thing could happen to them.

As former human rights commissioner and justice secretary under the term of President Benigno Aquino III, De Lima went to Davao City in 2015 to investigate extrajudicial killings allegedly perpetrated by the supposed Davao Death Squad, which was allegedly formed purportedly to go against drug lords in the city.

As a newly elected senator at the start of Duterte’s term as president, De Lima also con ducted Senate hearings to look into the extrajudicial killing of thousands of suspected drug users and pushers at the beginning of Duterte’s deadly drug war.

De Lima was detained in February 2017 and has remained incarcerated since, although she continues to criticize the Duterte administration and attend Senate hearings virtually from her cell.

De Lima was deprived of her human rights for her dedicated efforts to protect the rights of thousands of Filipinos, especially the families of those who were murdered purportedly in the name of peace and order.

For six long years, the Duterte administration has trampled on the rights of many ordinary Filipinos, suppressed the exercise of press freedom, and made direct and indirect threats to those who dared criticize his administration.

Those six years were a repeat of 14 long years of repression under former President Ferdinand Marcos’ martial law. And now, heirs of those two presidents who have long histories of human rights abuses are hoping to continue their fathers’ legacy of repression.
Should we let them rein in our freedoms for another six years? Or should we elect leaders who will defend our freedoms against those who wish to trample them? You have the power to make your choice correctly on Monday, May 9. It’s all up to you.