Muntinlupa presiding judge inhibits from De Lima’s drug case

A judge in Muntinlupa has voluntarily inhibited herself from hearing one of the two remaining drug cases of detained Sen. Leila de Lima.

In an order dated June 14, Presiding Judge Liezel Aquiatan of the Muntinlupa Regional Trial Court (RTC) Branch 205 granted De Lima’s motion for reconsideration, which she filed last May 24, seeking to inhibit her from case 17-165.

Sen. Leila de Lima leaves the Muntinlupa Hall of Justice after attending a hearing (Office of Sen. Leila de Lima / FILE / MANILA BULLETIN)

Aquiatan is the fifth judge who handled and voluntarily inhibited from hearing De Lima’s drug cases. Two other judges filed for early retirement.

The case was originally filed by the Department of Justice against De Lima and Ronnie Dayan in 2017 as illegal drug trading but later changed it to conspiracy to commit illegal drug trading when she was the justice secretary. The two are accused of getting P10 million from New Bilibid Prison (NBP) inmates in November and December, 2012.

On Feb. 17 this year, Aquiatan denied the senator’s demurrer to evidence, a motion seeking to dismiss the case.

“Taking into consideration the pieces of evidence of the prosecution collectively perused and analyzed, the Court is convinced that the evidence of guilt is strong,” Aquiatan ruled in her Feb. 17 decision but granted De Lima’s demurrer in another case, 17-166, which dismissed the charges against her.

On March 25, De Lima filed a motion for voluntary inhibition, citing “the legal errors in the Presiding Judge’s recent Orders amounted to an exhibition of her clear bias against accused De Lima; and the Presiding Judge’s systematic ignorance of the compelling evidence on record gives the impression that she has prejudged the case and renders her incapable of impartially deciding the case.”

Last May 17, Aquiatan denied De Lima’s motion for voluntary inhibition from the case, prompting the senator to file a motion for reconsideration on May 24.

In her latest order, Aquiatan ruled that “the Motion for Reconsideration filed by accused Leila De Lima y Magistrado is hereby granted. The Presiding Judge hereby voluntarily recuses herself from further hearing the instant case.”

“Apparently, accused De Lima is adamant that the Presiding Judge has already shown to have prejudged the case, biased, and hastily arriving at conclusions without regard to the claims and arguments she presented. The Presiding Judge, according to her, has lost the appearance of impartiality in deciding the instant case,” the judge said in the decision.

She added, “Accused De Lima's lack of confidence and trust cast a doubt against the Presiding Judge's sense of Îlnpartiality and independence. The insinuation of the accused that prosecution may be privy to the habits of the Presiding Judge is unfounded and totally unfair. The undersigned Presiding Judge is merely performing her sworn duty to observe and follow court proceedings and an inhibition in this present case, which is based on unfounded grounds, amounts to an abdication of responsibility.”

“However, after reflection, the Presiding Judge resolves to voluntarily desist from hearing the case as her integrity and fairness might be seriously impugned The Presiding Judge is thus convinced that the persistence of accused De Lima, which was later on joined by accused Dayan, is a just cause or valid ground to voluntarily inhibit in the instant case in order to dissuade any suspicion of partiality and to protect the interest of the judiciary where she belongs,” the judge added.

She said that “if not granted, it will only create a hostile environment during the hearing to the detriment of the party-litigants which may affect the proceedings of the instant case.”

The prosecution opposed De Lima’s motion for the judge’s inhibition from the case, saying it was another attempt to delay the trial of the case.