As It Happens·Q&A

'Justice will prevail,' says lawyer for jailed Philippine senator as prosecution witnesses recant

The “greatest frame-up” in Philippine history is beginning to unravel, says the lawyer for an imprisoned senator. 

Sen. Leila de Lima has been imprisoned since 2017 on charges human rights groups say are bogus

Philippine Sen. Leila de Lima is pictured here in 2016. The outspoken critic of President Rodrigo Duterte has been imprisoned since 2017. (Romeo Ranoco/Reuters)

The "greatest frame-up" in Philippine history is beginning to unravel, says the lawyer for an imprisoned senator. 

Sen. Leila de Lima has been imprisoned since February 2017 on drug charges that her supporters, as well as international rights groups, insist are fabricated. The president's office has dismissed these claims as "pure hogwash."

De Lima has been an outspoken critic of the outgoing President Rodrigo Duterte and his war on drugs, which human rights groups say have led to the deaths about 30,000 people, many from extrajudicial, vigilante-style killings.

Now, two key witnesses in her case are recanting — Rolan (Kerwin) Espinosa, who had initially stated he was a drug lord who had paid off de Lima, and Rafael Ragos, a key witness of the prosecution. Both claim that they were coerced into testifying against the senator, reports the Philippine news agency Rappler.

Following this, a group of U.S. senators have called for de Lima's immediate release

Meanwhile, de Lima is vying for re-election ahead of Monday's nationwide vote. On Friday, she filed a motion for her freedom with a regional court.

Dino de Leon is her lawyer and spokesperson. Here  is part of his conversation with As It Happens guest host Helen Mann.

How important is the decision of these two men to recant their testimony against Sen. de Lima?

The only supposed evidence that [the state has] were the testimonies of these two witnesses. So it is very important for them to actually recant and to tell the truth, the fact that they were threatened, their lives were very much in peril — just so that they could implicate Sen. Leila de Lima on false charges. 

Tell us who these two men are who gave this evidence against Sen. de Lima and how their stories have changed?

[Rolan] (Kerwin) Espinosa was actually a witness in the congressional hearings conducted under the Duterte administration.… Rodrigo Duterte himself stated that he will destroy Sen. Leila de Lima in public after [she] called for a public inquiry with respect to the violent war on drugs.

The Department of Justice … conducted a public inquiry [into de Lima]. One of their vital witnesses was Mr. Kerwin Espinosa, who stated for the record that he was a drug lord, allegedly, and that he gave money as pay off to Sen. Leila de Lima, to aid her, supposedly, in her bid to become a senator. 

In the court proceedings, Mr. Rafael Ragos was also used as a star witness. In fact, the testimony of Rafael Ragos was [that] he just woke up one day inside his quarters when he was the chief of the Bureau of Corrections.… He found money beside him — allegedly around 5 million pesos [$122,892 Cdn] — and then his mobile phone suddenly rang. And then there was an anonymous phone call ordering him to visit Sen. Leila de Lima. 

So these two men are alleged to have delivered money to Sen. de Lima that was drug money?

Yes, correct. And it's so funny because the details of their testimonies are ludicrous.… But that was bought by the court.… [Ramos] is now recanting his testimony and said that there's no truth to everything he said, and the only reason why he said it was because his life was in peril and that of his family.

And is that what both men are saying — that the testimony was false and they felt under threat?

Yes, that is correct.… In fact, Kerwin Espinosa's brother was actually also killed … several weeks prior to [Espinosa] being forced to testify. 

Rafael Ragos pointed to secretary [Vitaliano] Aguirre — the then-secretary of justice, appointed by President Duterte — as the one who threatened him. 

Mr. Ragos claims that he informed all of [the prosecution panel] that he was just manufacturing this statement because he was being threatened. They still said that he should co-operate because the Malacañan Palace — which is our presidential office — was watching him.

Why are the two men changing their statements now?

I am as clueless as you are. But the conscience of a burdened man is not time-bound. Probably, they were so afraid of their lives before, and they know for a fact that President Duterte is still very much powerful. 

But right now, considering that the president is starting to become a lame duck… that's perhaps the reason why they are starting to tell the truth. 

Police escort De Lima on her way to court on March 13, 2017. (Romeo Ranoco/Reuters)

You used the term "greatest frame-up," and so did Senator de Lima in a tweet from prison. Now, a spokesperson for the president has described the allegation that she was framed as "pure hogwash." What do you say to that?

Well, they are the ones who are in power. And just two weeks ago, they were supposed to present another witness, Joel Capones, and they were unable to do so. 

But Joel Capones is under their custody and is an inmate inside the national penitentiary. So why is it that they cannot present Capones? 

So the entire picture is starting to show itself.

Whatever they say, they cannot keep their lies forever, and eventually justice will prevail. 

Let me read you a quote from the Department of Justice. "As a rule, recantation is viewed with disfavour. The testimony of Ragos solemnly given in court is given more weight." What does that tell you about the chances that the senator will be released? 

A recantation … may perhaps be not as believable. But it also means that if this particular witness is not to be believed, then therefore — if he's a star witness that the burden of proof is with the prosecution — at the very least, they can no longer establish their case beyond reasonable doubt. 

De Lima's supporters display placards outside the court. (Erik De Castro/Reuters)

Where does the Philippine public stand, or are there calls for her release more generally? Or is it just a small group that wants her released?

There has always been a huge call for Sen. Leila de Lima's release, precisely because the charges against her are fabricated. But nevertheless … considering that they used the entire machinery of the state to character-assassinate Sen. Leila de Lima … it left a dent on [her] public image. 

The arc of the moral universe may be long, but it always bends toward justice. So justice will prevail. They cannot erase the fact that Sen. Leila de Lima is innocent. Her conscience is clear. And that is starting to show as of the moment with the recent recantations of the witnesses.

Your country is holding elections on Monday. How much does the senator's fate depend on the people who win? 

So much. 

Those people who are in power … abused our legal systems, abused our justice system, and used the awesome powers of the state just to persecute Sen. Leila de Lima. 

[President Duterte's] daughter, [Sara Duterte,] is running as vice-president, allied with [Ferdinand (Bongbong) Marcos Jr.,] the son of the worst dictator and the most corrupt head of state in the entire history of the world, [former Philippine] president Ferdinand Marcos. 

These people have ruined Philippine democracy for the longest time.… If we elect these people once again, they'll keep Sen. Leila de Lima in jail.

Is Sen. de Lima likely to win her own re-election bid on Monday? 

We believe in our people. She will fight whatever happens. 

I'm her spokesperson. I've been the one who is campaigning on the ground.… It's sometimes a tall order to actually try to reverse what was this well-orchestrated attempt to destroy her in public. 

But we believe in our people, and hopefully she will be vindicated after the elections. 


Written by Aloysius Wong. Interview produced by Kevin Robertson. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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