Retraction by key Filipino accuser triggers calls to free jailed senator

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Jailed opposition senator Leila De Lima
Jailed opposition senator Leila De Lima ... main accuser recants "coerced" accusations. Image: Rappler

By Lian Buan in Manila

The retraction of Kerwin Espinosa, one of the main accusers in the Philippines Bilibid drug trade allegations, has drummed up calls from different sectors to free jailed opposition senator Leila De Lima, but the Department of Justice (DOJ) is not budging.

The difficulty with this development is that Espinosa is not involved in the remaining two drug cases against De Lima in the Muntinlupa Regional Trial Court (RTC), either as a respondent or an official witness.

De Lima was earlier acquitted of one of the original three cases.

The controversy emerged as the Philippines entered the last week of campaigning for the presidential election next Monday, May 9.

Espinosa submitted a counter-affidavit to the DOJ last Thursday retracting all his allegations, including paying drug money to De Lima. It was for a separate case, but still related to the Bilibid drug trade, involving the same cast of convicts.

“The previous statements/affidavits of Mr Espinosa which he now recanted were never utilised and will not be used by the prosecution as evidence in the two pending drug cases vs Senator Leila De Lima,” DOJ said in a statement.

Manipulation against staunch critic
While De Lima’s lawyer Filibon Tacardon acknowledges the complication of using to their favour a retraction from Espinosa who is not an official witness, the lawyer pointed out that it still implies illegal maneuvering by the government to jail President Rodrigo Duterte’s staunch critic.

Records show that when the DOJ charged De Lima in 2017, it dismissed the complaint against De Lima and Espinosa “for lack of merit”.

Back then, Espinosa faced what could have been De Lima’s fourth charge after claiming he had paid the senator drug money through Ronnie Dayan.

Although the DOJ dropped Espinosa from the charge and as their witness, the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) filed a new case against him in December 2021 over a similar story of drug trade in Bilibid. This is the case where Espinosa submitted his latest affidavit retracting his claims against De Lima.

Espinosa said he was coerced and threatened by police and NBI to cooperate with their narrative.

In a dispatch from Camp Crame, De Lima said: “As I have always been saying, all allegations against me invented by the Duterte machine of lies and fabrications would ultimately unravel.”

Perjury against Espinosa?
Groups called on the DOJ to investigate motu proprio, or on its own initiative, Espinosa’s claim of coercion, but Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra had a different idea in mind —  pursue a perjury charge against Espinosa.

“We will determine that when he faces perjury charges … I will discuss this matter with the panel of prosecutors. Whether or not his testimony is material to the prosecution’s cause, making false statements under oath is a criminal offense,” Guevarra told reporters.

If the prosecution will not use Espinosa’s retraction, the Muntinlupa courts can call him as their own witness, said criminal law professor Ted Te.

“That’s always within the plenary powers of a court — to get to the truth. Can the court ask about context? Yes. Is it relevant? Of course,” said Te.

Tacardon said that it was the defence turn to present in the one case, while the prosecution is wrapping up in the second, which means the defence will present soon.

“As to whether Kerwin Espinosa will be a defence witness has yet to be discussed,” said Tacardon.

Te suggested De Lima’s team should.

“If the defence were to call Espinosa that would be more than enough for reasonable doubt. The question is why should the court allow it to drag on any further?” Te said.

De Lima has been in jail for five years, her trial attracting global political attention, with the United States even mulling a travel ban against her accusers.

Robredo returns to Central Luzon
Meanwhile, Rappler reports presidential candidate Vice-President Leni Robredo has returned to vote-rich regions Central Luzon and Calabarzon with just over a week until the May 9 elections.

In the first leg of her return to these regions, Robredo will barnstorm Bulacan, the fifth most vote-rich province in the country where 2 million votes are up for grabs.

She had earlier secured the endorsement of Bulacan Governor Daniel Fernando.

Lian Buan is a Rappler reporter. Republished with permission.

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