SC votes to keep De Lima in jail

Sen. Leila de Lima

MANILA — Sen. Leila de Lima will have to stay in jail and stand trial for the drug charges against her after the Supreme Court (SC) on Tuesday dismissed her petition seeking release from detention.

The SC justices voted 9-6 to deny for lack of merit De Lima’s petition questioning the jurisdiction of the Muntinlupa City regional trial court (RTC) in issuing the warrant for her arrest.

De Lima had argued that considering her position as senator, it is the Sandiganbayan that has jurisdiction over her person.

The SC ruled that the Muntinlupa RTC has exclusive jurisdiction over the drug charges against De Lima, even if her position with salary grade higher than 27 is under the jurisdiction of the Sandiganbayan.

The SC also rejected De Lima’s argument that the criminal case against her should be direct bribery and not violation of Republic Act 9165 or the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act. 

“The exclusive original jurisdiction of the RTC over violations of RA 9165 is not transferred to the Sandiganbayan whenever the accused occupies a position classified as Grade 27 or higher, regardless of whether the violation is alleged to have been committed in relation to the office being occupied. The Sandiganbayan’s jurisdiction is limited to violations of the anti-graft laws and do not extend to violations of the drugs law,” the SC said.

It also ruled that Judge Juanita Guerrero of the Muntinlupa RTC Branch 204 did not commit grave abuse of discretion in ordering the arrest of De Lima and finding probable cause in the charges against her.

“The Court noted that respondent judge considered all the evidence presented at the preliminary investigation and not simply the report and supporting evidence the prosecution proposed to present at the trial, which was based on the evidence presented during the preliminary investigation,” the SC pointed out.

Associate Justice Presbitero Velasco Jr. penned the ruling after rejecting the plea of De Lima for his inhibition due to alleged “conflict of interest” over his “prior actuations” in the case of convicted drug lord German Agojo, one of the witnesses against the senator in the drug cases.

The eight magistrates who concurred with the ruling were Associate Justices Teresita Leonardo-de Castro, Diosdado Peralta, Lucas Bersamin, Mariano del Castillo, Samuel Martires, Noel Tijam, Andres Reyes and Alexander Gesmundo.

The six magistrates who dissented from the majority ruling were Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio and Associate Justices Estela Perlas Bernabe, Marvic Leonen, Francis Jardeleza and Benjamin Caguioa.

Lastly, the SC added De Lima’s petition was premature as it violated the rule on hierarchy of courts and the prohibition against forum shopping.

The ruling is not yet final as De Lima can still file a motion for reconsideration.

The Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Office of the Solicitor General (OSG) immediately welcomed the ruling.

Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II said he believes the high court made the correct decision when it upheld their position that the RTC has jurisdiction over the drug cases against De Lima.

“Because of this decision of the Supreme Court, our prosecutors will now move for the arraignment of De Lima to proceed in the RTC. And assuming that there would be no motion for amendment of the information, then the trial will proceed,” Aguirre said.

Solicitor General Jose Calida, for his part, lauded the high court for siding with their position on the case of De Lima, which he stressed “negates the erroneous perception that the government’s war against drugs is waged only against the unlettered and the underprivileged.”

“In allowing Judge Juanita Guerrero (the SC) showed its faith in the impartiality, ability and experience of trial court judges to dispense justice without fear or favor,” Calida said.

Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon said he believes the Office of the Ombudsman should handle the cases against De Lima.

“But I respect the decision of the Supreme Court. I’m a lawyer and former justice secretary, I disagree but I will respect the SC decision. I assume Senator De Lima will file a motion for reconsideration and I hope the SC can take a close second look at the decision,” Drilon said.

Since the voting was close, Drilon it was also possible that some justices may change their minds once De Lima files her appeal.

Drilon said the minority bloc would press Senate President Aquilino Pimentel III to have their resolution to have the chamber ask the courts concerned to let De Lima participate in legislative proceedings.

“We will not give up. We will keep on requesting. We are not asking for Senator De Lima to be released, what we are just asking is to allow her to perform her duties as a senator,” he said.

Sen. Paolo Benigno Aquino IV said he was saddened and disappointed by the ruling.

“Still, we remain hopeful that the high court will allow Senator Leila to fulfill her duties as a duly elected senator, even under detention,” Aquino said.

For her part, Sen. Risa Hontiveros said De Lima was detained on “fake” and “baseless” charges.

Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV said the ruling was “unfortunate as it virtually puts a stamp of legitimacy on the political persecution and injustice being done to Sen. Leila de Lima.”

Kabayan party-list Rep. Harry Roque said the ruling on De Lima affirms that the justice system in the Philippines works.

“It proves that even a big fish can be held to pay for her criminal acts. It’s a triumph of the rule of law.
“Moreover, it should also be noted that even if the SC had ruled in favor of De Lima, she would still remain in jail as there is a second arrest warrant against her issued by another branch of the Muntinlupa regional trial court,” Roque said.

In a statement, cause-oriented group TindigPilipinas! said it was “appalled” by the SC decision and called De Lima a “victim of political vendetta because she dared to question the extrajudicial killings” associated with President Duterte.

“That the majority of justices in the Supreme Court should overlook these glaring violations of Sen. De Lima’s basic constitutional rights adds to our increasing alarm at the systematic degradation of the basic checks and balance of our democracy,” the statement also said.

In her petition filed last February, De Lima asked the high court to stop her indictment before the Muntinlupa RTC by the DOJ on the accusations that she benefited from illegal drug trade in the New Bilibid Prison. She sought a temporary restraining order to stop the proceedings in the drug cases against her and the issuance of an arrest warrant.

Her petition was heard by the SC in oral arguments last March and raised the issue on whether the cases against her fall under jurisdiction of the RTC or the Sandiganbayan.

The senator, currently detained at the Philippine National Police custodial center, also argued that the allegations against her do not actually constitute sale and trading of illegal drugs and liability of government officials under the Dangerous Drugs Act, but only direct bribery.

In the drug cases, De Lima is accused of receiving around P10 million in drug payoffs from November 2012 to early 2013 through her co-accused, former Bureau of Corrections officer-in-charge Rafael Ragos.

De Lima was arrested last Feb. 24 upon warrant issued by Muntinlupa RTC Branch 204 judge Guerrero.