MANILA, Philippines - Former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo yesterday pleaded not guilty to the crime of electoral sabotage, and vowed to clear her name during her arraignment at the Pasay City Regional Trial Court (RTC).Arroyo, now a Pampanga representative, wore a neck brace and an all-white ensemble as she arrived at around 8:30 a.m. for the proceedings in the courtroom of Pasay RTC Branch 112 Judge Jesus Mupas.
She was accompanied by her husband Jose Miguel, son Juan Miguel and a medical team from the Veterans Memorial Medical Center where she is currently detained due to her spine ailment.
The arraignment lasted less than an hour.
Arroyo’s lawyer Benjamin Santos said his client waived the reading of information on the charges against her since she fully understood the indictment.
After the case number was announced, Arroyo said, “Not guilty.”
Pre-trial was set on April 19.
Arrested in November, Arroyo is facing electoral sabotage charges filed by a joint panel of the Commission on Elections (Comelec) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) for allegedly manipulating the results of the 2007 midterm polls in Maguindanao to favor the senatorial bets of the then administration party.
She faces life in prison if convicted.
Charged along with Arroyo were former Maguindanao governor Andal Ampatuan Sr. and former provincial election supervisor Lintang Bedol.
In a statement issued prior to her arraignment, Arroyo vowed to clear her name and that of her family and abide by the rule of law.
Arroyo also called on the Aquino administration to respect the rule of law in prosecuting cases against officials of the previous government and other perceived enemies.
“Despite the continuous and massive vilification campaign against me and my family, I have always said that I will dispute all charges in the proper forum,” Arroyo said.
“I am submitting myself to this process not only to clear my name but also as part of my commitment to respect and abide by the rules and orders of our courts,” she said.
“It is my fervent hope that our leaders uphold and our people have faith in the Constitution and the rule of law,” she said.
Arroyo was seen smiling as she entered the Pasay City courtroom but her husband said the former president is frustrated over the case.
“She feel it’s an injustice… there is no case, she is frustrated,” Mr. Arroyo said.
Hundreds of Arroyo’s supporters, who also wore white, converged in front of the city hall to show their support for the former leader.
“We will not abandon you,” their streamers read.
Santos told the court his client waived her right to appear in the next hearings of her case.
He also said they are requesting a speedy trial – at least three hearings a week.
But clerk of court Joel Pelicano said the court can only handle two trials per week because of their tight schedule.
The arraignment of Arroyo had earlier been moved from Feb. 20 to March 19 but Santos filed a motion to proceed with the arraignment for security and health reasons of his client.
With Arroyo’s not guilty plea, the Comelec yesterday said it is prepared for a court battle with the former leader.
In an interview, Comelec spokesman James Jimenez said they had expected Arroyo not to admit the offense during her arraignment yesterday.
“That was expected. That’s why we have been preparing hard because we know it is not going to be handed to us on a silver platter. We expected this ‘not guilty’ plea and we are ready to prove that she is, in fact, guilty,” he said.
Bayan Muna Rep. Neri Colmenares also said he expected the not guilty plea.
“After all, she had been covering up all accountability issues raised against her during her nine-year presidency,” he said.
He said he expects Arroyo to deny any and all charges filed or to be filed against her.
He said the former president’s arraignment would not have taken place had impeached Chief Justice Renato Corona succeeded in allowing her and her husband to leave the country last Nov. 15.
The Arroyos went to the airport and tried to board planes for Singapore and Hong Kong, but immigration officers prevented them from leaving.
Gabriela party-list Rep. Luzviminda Ilagan, for her part, said the administration should not forget to prosecute Arroyo for plunder and violation of human rights.
One step closer
Malacañang, meanwhile, welcomed the arraignment of Arroyo on electoral sabotage charges – to whuch she pleaded not guilty – and hoped that a ruling would come out within the current administration’s term.
Presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda said Arroyo’s arraignment “brings us one step closer towards attaining closure to the many controversies that have hounded our country during the previous administration.”
“Accountability escapes no one. This is the very foundation of the rule of law: The scales of justice should tip towards no one; her blindfold must continue to shield the system from being susceptible to the temptations of pandering to those with power and influence,” Lacierda said.
He said the Comelec-DOJ task force that investigated the alleged role of Arroyo in the cheating during the 2007 senatorial elections would not press any charges if there was no prima facie case of electoral sabotage.
“Now that she has been arraigned, she is now under the jurisdiction of the court, so we can expect the trial to move on. Arraignment is the very first step towards trial on the merits,” Lacierda said. – With Paolo Romero, Sheila Crisostomo, Jess Diaz, Reinir Padua, Aurea Calica - By Perseus Echeminada (Philstar News Service, www.philstar.com)