The former president of the Philippines refused to enter a plea Monday in a Quezon City courtroom to accusations that she diverted nearly $9 million from a government office that raises money for charity.
It was a small act of defiance from Gloria Macapagal Arroyo against a case her attorneys denounce as political persecution. The court entered a “not guilty” plea for her, following its usual rules. Such silence is not unusual in Filipino courtrooms, said Ramon Casiple, executive director of the Institute for Political and Electoral Reform based in Quezon City.
But in this closely watched case, “she is projecting among the people that she is being forced to be there, being persecuted,” Casiple said. “Staying silent is an advantage for her.”
The case has transfixed the Philippines as the latest test for a government that has vowed to quash corruption, with local media breathlessly covering every step of the Monday hearing. If convicted, Arroyo would be the biggest fish yet netted so far in the government crusade against graft. Besides the case of plundering state funds, she also faces separate charges of election fraud.
“It’s always been an issue here in the Philippines that the rich can get away with murder while the poor are always put into jail,” said Harvey Keh, founder of the nonpartisan Kaya Natin! Movement for Good Governance and Ethical Leadership. Putting Arroyo on trial, he said, would show the country is moving past that. “People want Arroyo to answer the charges against her.”
Arroyo has denied the charges and challenged the case at the Supreme Court, which has yet to decide on her petition. The former president chose most of the sitting members on the court; President Benigno Aquino III has argued the court obstructs bringing former officials to justice. The court announced Monday that it had issued a temporary order stopping the arrest of another defendant in the case, Nilda Plaras; the order reportedly did not apply to Arroyo. The decision nonetheless fueled widespread confusion in local media and spurred speculation that Arroyo would be next.
"This could be a very slow case, legally speaking," Casiple said.
Arroyo and her convoy traveled to the courthouse Monday from a medical center where she has stayed while under arrest since earlier this month due to health problems. She wore a neck brace and was ushered into the building in a wheelchair.
Despite her hospitalization and arrest, Arroyo is seeking reelection to the Philippines Congress, where she sits in the House of Representatives. Though a September poll found 72% of people nationwide had little or no trust in Arroyo, she is running in an area her family has a long history of representing, said Ronald Holmes, assistant professor at De La Salle University.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if she gets reelected,” he said. “We’ve had politicians in the past who, despite a number of cases against them, were still able to get reelected.”
But this time could be different, with Aquino weighing in for her opponent. Compared with the paltry numbers for Arroyo, the president enjoys the trust of 78% of Filipinos polled, according to the Pulse Asia survey in September. Filipinos have welcomed his rallying cry against corruption and his willingness to confront some of the biggest players from its political past.
For many people, there’s “pent-up anger, pent-up frustration, pent-up disappointment” with government, Keh said. “It’s only now that they can finally see that justice can be served.”
— Emily Alpert in Tadanoumi, Japan
Photo: This handout photo taken Monday and released by Philippine National Police-Public Information Office shows former Philippine President Gloria Arroyo talking to one of her lawyers as she waits for the start of her arraignment on corruption charges in Manila. Credit: Agence France-Presse / Ernesto Lasig / PNP-PIO.