Muntinlupa court dismisses another drug case vs De Lima

A Muntinlupa court has dismissed another drug case filed by the Department of Justice (DOJ) against former senator Leila de Lima in 2017.  

In a decision released on May 12, the Muntinlupa Regional Trial Court (RTC) Branch 204 found De Lima and Ronnie Dayan not guilty in case 17-165, which accused the two of conspiracy to commit illegal drug trading allegedly done during her time as justice secretary. 

Former senator Leila de Lima at the Muntinlupa Hall of Justice on May 12 (Juan Carlo De Vela)

“Wherefore, both accused Leila M. De Lima y Magistrado and Ronnie Palisoc Dayan are hereby acquitted of the crime charged on the ground of reasonable doubt,” Presiding Judge Abraham Joseph Alcantara said in his decision.  

De Lima, who attended the promulgation of the decision, cried when the court announced her acquittal , according to her legal counsel Boni Tacardon. 

“I have no doubt from the very beginning that I will be acquitted in all the cases that the Duterte regime has fabricated against me based on the merits and strength of my innocence. That’s already two cases down and one more to go,” said De Lima in a statement read by Tacardon. 

She added, “I am, of course, happy that with the second acquittal in the three cases filed against me, my release from more than six years of persecution draws nearer. I am extremely grateful to all those who stood by and prayed for me all these years.” 

In February 2017, the DOJ under the Duterte administration filed three cases of illegal drug trading against De Lima and others before Muntinlupa courts. Prosecutors later changed the charges to conspiracy to commit illegal drug trading. 

One of the three cases, 17-166, was dismissed by a Muntinlupa court in February 2021 when it granted De Lima’s demurrer to evidence, which was “tantamount to her acquittal,” according to the judge’s decision.  

In case 17-165, the DOJ accused De Lima of receiving P10 million in 2012, which supposedly came from the proceeds of illegal drug trading at the New Bilibid Prison (NBP) in Muntinlupa.

De Lima was detained based on a warrant of arrest issued by the first judge who handled case 17-165. She surrendered to the police on Feb. 24, 2017 and has been detained for more than six years at the Philippine National Police (PNP) Custodial Center in Camp Crame. 

Recantation by Ragos 

In April last year, former Bureau of Corrections officer-in-charge Rafael Ragos, the key government witness in the case,  issued an affidavit to recant all his allegations against De Lima and Dayan. 

The key government witness in the case,  former Bureau of Corrections officer-in-charge Rafael Ragos, recanted all his allegations against De Lima and Dayan. He said he was coerced into making false testimonies against De Lima and Dayan in the case. 

In his original affidavits and testimonies, Ragos claimed that he delivered P10 million to De Lima’s house in Paranaque: P5 million in November 2012 and P5 million in December 2012. 

In an affidavit he executed on April 30, 2022, Ragos recanted all his statements and exonerated De Lima and Dayan. He also appeared in the Muntinlupa court to affirm his recantation, saying that the two accused were innocent of the charges. 

In his affidavit, Ragos said, “I now hereby declare and make known to the whole world that there is no truth whatsoever to any of these affidavits or House and court testimonies, or any other statement made in the media or other investigatory proceedings, including the Senate and the DOJ, on the delivery of monies to Sec. De Lima or Ronnie Dayan in whatever amount

“There was never any money delivered to my quarters. Even if there was, I would have immediately conducted an investigation and filed a case against the responsible individuals, instead of following the instructions of an unknown caller or Hans Tan to deliver a package like an ordinary messenger,” he said. 

According to Ragos, “As far as I know and based on my professional relationship with Sec. De Lima, she is incapable of doing anything illegal, much less engage in the illegal drug trade or accept money from Bilibid inmates.” 

“I was forced to execute the above affidavits and deliver the above House and court testimonies against Sec. De Lima and Ronnie Dayan due to threats of being detained myself for the crime of engaging in the illegal drug trade that I did not commit,” he said. 

Ragos said he executed “this affidavit freely, voluntarily, truthfully, and without any mental reservation whatsoever, in order to absolve Sec. De Lima and Ronnie Dayan, who are completely innocent, from entirely false and absolutely fabricated criminal charges.”

“I beg the forgiveness of these innocent persons who suffered from my transgression of bearing false witness against them. I hope they find it in their heart to do so, knowing that I was only forced to transgress against them to save my own life. May God help me,” he said. 

Court admits Ragos’ recantation 

In the decision, the court said, “Recantations are viewed with suspicion and reservation. The  court looks with disfavor upon retractions of testimonies previously given in court. The rationale for the rule is obvious: affidavits of retraction can easily be secured from witnesses, usually through  intimidation or for a monetary consideration.” 

“Recanted testimony is exceedingly unreliable as there is always the probability that it will later be repudiated. Only when there exist special circumstances in the case which, when coupled with the retraction, raise doubts as to the truth of the testimony or statement given, can retractions be considered and upheld,” it said. 

It added, “The general rule is that recantations are hardly given much weight in the determination of a case and in the granting of a new trial. The rare exception is when there is no evidence sustaining the judgment of conviction other than the testimony of a witness or witnesses who are shown to have made contradictory statements as to material facts under which circumstances the court may be led to a different conclusion.” 

“Under the circumstances of this case, the testimony of witness Ragos is necessary to sustain any possible conviction. Without his testimony, the crucial link to establish conspiracy is shrouded with reasonable doubt. Hence, this Court is constrained to consider the subsequent retraction of witness Ragos. Ultimately, the retraction created reasonable doubt which warrants the acquittal of both accused,” it said. 

The court noted that law enforcement agencies should not disregard the law in their campaign against illegal drugs.  

“As a final note, while Courts have always supported the efforts of law enforcement agencies to combat the proliferation of illegal drugs in Philippine society, vigilance in eradicating illegal drugs cannot come at the expense of disregarding the rule of law, evidence and established jurisprudence on the matter,” it said. 

It added, “Here, the prosecution competently established the existence of illegal drug trading at the NBP.  However, the retraction of witness Ragos casts reasonable doubt on the participation of herein accused as conspirators therein.”

The dismissal of the case has put De Lima one step closer to being freed from detention. 

Another drug case, 17-167, is pending before the Muntinlupa RTC Branch 256. The court was supposed to rule on De Lima’s petition for bail on May 8 but deferred it after there was an issue in the marking of evidence by the prosecution. 

The court has not announced a new date on the release of its decision on the bail petition. If the court grants bail to De Lima, she will be freed from detention. 

Tacardon said the next hearing in the case is set on June 5 but they are hoping that the court will rule on the petition for bail before the date.