Key witness in case against jailed Philippine senator recants statement

Basilio Sepe and Jeoffrey Maitem
2022.04.28
Manila
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Key witness in case against jailed Philippine senator recants statement Filipino Catholic priest Flavie Villanueva stands next to a cardboard cutout of jailed opposition Sen. Leila de Lima during an election campaign rally in Manila, April 23, 2022.
Jason Gutierrez/BenarNews

A key witness in the Philippine government’s case against Sen. Leila de Lima, a jailed politician and arch critic of President Rodrigo Duterte, recanted his statement implicating her in the narcotics trade, according to a court document made public Thursday. 

De Lima, a leading voice of the opposition, is running for re-election in next month’s national polls from her prison cell. She has been incarcerated since 2017 on what she insists are trumped-up charges that she had received funds from illegal drug syndicates. 

Kerwin Espinosa, a confessed drug lord and one of the witnesses against de Lima, apologized to the senator and cleared her of any wrongdoing, according to the court papers.

“Any and all of his statements given during the Senate hearings, or in the form of sworn written affidavits, against Sen. Leila de Lima are not true,” read Espinosa’s counter-affidavit, which his lawyer filed at the Department of Justice.

“He has no dealings with Sen. de Lima and has not given her any money at any given time,” it said.

Earlier statements linking de Lima to the drug trade “are false and were the result only 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,” it added.

In Manila, the presidential palace did not immediately comment Thursday on the news about the witness’s recanting of the statement against de Lima. 

In her former role as head of the Philippines’ Commission on Human Rights, an independent constitutional body investigating human rights violations, de Lima angered Duterte by investigating reports of extrajudicial killings by a death squad that he allegedly had set up when he was the mayor of Davao City.

One of Duterte’s first official acts after being elected president in 2016 was to go after de Lima. He publicly shamed her as she moved to mount a Senate inquiry into the killings linked to the drug war.

De Lima has been locked up since February 2017 over allegations, which she denies, that she received payoffs from drug traffickers when she served as the country’s justice secretary. 

There are three drug-related cases against de Lima. Last year, a court acquitted her of one of the cases against her. 

Other witnesses called to recant statements

Espinosa’s lawyer, Raymund Palad, told the local television network ABS-CBN that his client had signed the affidavit in front of him at the heavily guarded prison facility in Metro Manila’s Bicutan district. 

“Basically, he is recanting whatever statements he claimed against de Lima,” Palad said Thursday.

De Lima’s lawyer, Filibon Tacardon, said Espinosa’s statement proved that the Duterte administration had fabricated evidence against the senator.

“We have always believed that no matter the lies perpetrated by coerced witnesses, in the end, the truth will still come out,” Tacardon said in a statement.

“We hope that other witnesses will also come out and confess how they were intimidated, coerced and bribed into making false testimonies against the good senator and, if possible, name those who actively participated in coercing them to come up with such ridiculous narratives against the good senator,” the lawyer said.

Espinosa went into hiding after his father, Rolando Espinosa, surrendered to the authorities to clear his name but was killed while in police custody in November 2016.

The elder Espinosa, who was the mayor of central Albuera town, had alleged links to the drug trade. Police said he pulled a weapon on officers searching his jail cell, which provoked a shootout that resulted in his death.

The son was later caught in the Middle East. He admitted to being a drug trafficker during a public inquiry at the Senate where he testified against de Lima.

Free the senator

Vice presidential candidate Walden Bello, an academic who is also among Duterte’s top critics, urged the government to free de Lima.

“One of the key elements of my campaign has been the unconditional release of this long-suffering victim of a frame-up based on nothing else but the president’s vindictiveness. Release Sen. de Lima now,” he said. 

Human rights lawyer Chel Diokno, who is seeking a seat in the Senate and endorses de Lima’s re-election, said the development should at least force the court to drop all charges against her.

“The charges filed were only part of revenge. Free de Lima now,” he said.

Butch Olano, the Philippine director of Amnesty International, noted that Espinosa’s retraction was “veritable proof” of a vendetta against Duterte’s critics.

“Sen. de Lima is a victim of a political prosecution, targeted and singled out by the Duterte administration for her legitimate work as a human rights defender and duly elected senator,” Olano said in a statement, adding that Espinosa’s retraction was “deeply disturbing.”

“Her arrest and detention clearly stem from her criticism of President Duterte’s war on drugs,” Olana said, calling on Duterte to immediately and unconditionally release the senator.

Duterte’s drug war has left an estimated 8,000 suspected drug addicts and pushers dead. It has been internationally condemned, and he faces an International Criminal Court (ICC) investigation over the killings.

His daughter, Sara Duterte-Carpio, is running for vice president in next month’s election.

She has paired up with presidential candidate Ferdinand Marcos Jr., the son and namesake of the former dictator, who has said he would block any ICC official from carrying out an investigation on Philippine soil.

During a visit to the central city of Cebu on Wednesday, Duterte said he might have underestimated the extent of the nation’s drug problem when he promised to end the scourge months into his term.

“I said I can clean it in six months. Then after that, I realized that I had made a mistake. Maybe it’s hubris,” Duterte said.

“You have not seen the bigger picture of drugs as I have,” Duterte said, adding that his policy to kill dealers would continue until his last day in office in June.

“If you continue [the drugs business], of course, you will die. This will continue as long as I’m president. I will not let go of that.”

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