Arroyo Walks Free

MANILA, Philippines --- Former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo on Wednesday left the Veterans Memorial Medical Center where she has been in hospital detention for eight months after a Pasay City court allowed her to post a P1-million bail.

Wearing a neck brace to support her spine that is weakened from a rare disease, Arroyo left the tightly guarded hospital in Quezon City and was driven in a van to her residence in La Vista Subdivision.

The granting of bail appeared a major setback for President Benigno S. Aquino III, who has said that bringing Arroyo to justice for crimes she allegedly committed while in power is crucial to his high-profile anti-graft campaign.

Arroyo's spokesman, Ferdinand Topacio, described the court ruling on Wednesday morning as "a triumph of justice and a resounding denial of dictatorship" that proved her earlier assertions of innocence.

Arroyo, 65, was arrested at the St. Luke's Hospital in Taguig City in November last year shortly after immigration authorities blocked her from leaving the country.

Aquino had said Arroyo was trying to flee the country to escape imminent charges against her, although she said she needed specialist treatment overseas for her spinal disease.

Arroyo was charged shortly after with electoral sabotage for allegedly conspiring with a political warlord to rig the 2007 senatorial elections.

She was then transferred to Veterans, where she had been detained while awaiting trial. No date has yet been set for the start of the trial, which could take years to complete.

The Pasay City regional trial court, which is hearing the case, said the case against Arroyo was weak.

In its ruling, the court said the prosecution failed to establish the "required quantum of proof" that Arroyo was involved in a conspiracy to rig the elections.

However, the court said she could not leave the country and would still stand trial for the offense.

Topacio said that before leaving Veterans, Arroyo went to the hospital's chapel to pray.

Police vehicles accompanied her van in the short drive to her house at Badjao St. in La Vista.

The convoy took a while to leave the hospital because a group of about 50 protestors had blocked the hospital's gate.

Policemen cleared a path for the convoy.

Raul Lambino, one of Arroyo's lawyers, said the former President will go to an alternative medicine facility in Tagaytay City today.

Starting Monday, Arroyo will be visiting her doctors at Veterans for her one-hour daily medical therapy.

Presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda said the President would accept the court's decision, but that it did not mean Arroyo would escape punishment.

"The fight against corruption continues. We will still go after people who have found to have plundered the nation's coffers," Lacierda said. "This will not dampen our resolve to file and to continue to institute corruption cases against responsible officials."

He said the government would leave it up to its lawyers whether they would file an appeal or not against the granting of bail.

Arroyo has also been charged with corruption for approving an allegedly graft-tainted contract to set up a national government broadband system, and plunder for allegedly siphoning off $8 million from Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office (PCSO) funds.

The plunder case is also punishable by life in jail, although trials for those two charges have also yet to begin.

Commision on Elections (Comelec) Chairman Sixto Brillantes was puzzled that the court allowed Arroyo to post bail.

Interviewed shortly after attending the hearing of the House Committee on Suffrage, Brillantes questioned the haste with which the court reached a decision.

"I'm really surprised why the court was rushing," he said, admitting the decision was a setback to the prosecution.

Brillantes said Comelec lawyers will file "at the latest tomorrow morning" a motion asking the court to reconsider its decision.

"We still have evidence to convince the judge to change his mind," he said.

The Comelec presented 11 witnesses against Arroyo, including former Maguindanao Provincial Administrator Norie Unas who testified that Arroyo ordered former Maguindanao Governor Andal Ampatuan Sr. to rig the 2007 senatorial elections to favor her candidates.

Even Justice Secretary Leila de Lima was surprised.

De Lima told reporters yesterday she will meet today with Brillantes to discuss possible legal remedies still available to government lawyers to reverse the ruling of the Pasay RTC to grant bail to the former president.

Senators had different reactions to the decision.

Senate President Pro Tempore Jose "Jinggoy" Estrada said that while the release of Arroyo was a slap in the face of President Aquino, it also proves that the "wheels of justice" are working under the present administration.

"Unlike before, when we were incarcerated, it took two years before the Sandiganbayan granted me bail and eventually to convict my father even if there is no sufficient evidence. The Arroyo administration is very different from President Aquino's. When Gloria (Arroyo) was in power, there was no mercy,"

Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile said he finds nothing irregular with the court decision, saying that any one charged with a capital offense could post bail "if the evidence against him is weak."

Sen. Gregorio Honasan also said that if there is anything good that came out of Arroyo's release, it is that "due process was observed and the rule of law was applied."

Sen. Franklin Drilon, an administration ally, said that despite the setback, the government "will not go slow in prosecuting" Arroyo for the abuses and excesses "of her nine-year misrule."

Sen. Panfilo Lacson blamed the joint committee panel composed of government prosecutors and the Commission on Elections (Comelec) for failing to build a strong case against Arroyo.

The House opposition bloc said the granting of bail to Arroyo marks "the beginning of the temperation of executive power."

House Minority Leader and Quezon Rep. Danilo Suarez said they are "gratified" by the court decision.

"We consider this a triumph for the rules of evidence, due process, and the courage of individual members of the judiciary in the face of a powerful presidency. We can only hope that it sets the example for other and marks the beginning of the temperation of executive power by other institutions of our Republic," he told reporters yesterday.

Alliance for Nationalism and Democracy (ANAD) Rep. Pastor Alcover Jr. said the decision of the court should be respected.

Zambales Rep. Ma. Milagros "Mitos" Magsaysay agreed the ruling must be respected.

Bohol Rep. Erico Aumentado, chairman of the House committee on ethics and privileges, said the court has the prerogative to grant bail to Arroyo.

Bayan Muna congressmen Teddy Casino and Neri Colmenares echoed the sentiment that the ruling is a "big slap on the face of President Aquino" and set back government efforts to hold Arroyo accountable for her crimes. (Charissa M. Luci, Leonard Postrado, Leslie Aquino and Hannah L. Torregoza and AFP)