Former Philippine president Gloria Arroyo refused to enter a plea yesterday on a graft charge that could see her imprisoned for life, as she appeared in court wheelchair-bound and wearing a neck brace.
Arroyo sat quietly as Judge Efren de la Cruz read the charge that she had plundered US$8.8 million in state lottery funds during her time as president from 2001 to 2010.
One of Arroyo’s lawyers, Ferdinand Topacio, said no plea was entered because her legal team had questioned the legality of charge with the Philippine Supreme Court, which had yet to issue a ruling on the motion.
“This arrest, as we have said before, is illegal and baseless,” Topacio told reporters. “It is a right of anyone accused not to enter a plea.”
The Supreme Court is the highest judicial body in the country.
However, De la Cruz entered a “not guilty” on Arroyo’s behalf and asked the defense and prosecution to return on Dec. 3 for a preliminary session during which both sides will present their list of witnesses.
Arroyo ended her time in power as one of the Philippine’s most unpopular presidents amid allegations she had cheated to win elections, embraced feared warlords as allies and was involved in widespread corruption.
Her successor, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III, won a landslide election after vowing to fight corruption and to prosecute Arroyo.
Government prosecutors charged Arroyo with vote fraud in November last year for allegedly rigging the 2007 Philippine senatorial vote.
She spent most of the next eight months under detention at a military hospital, where she was treated for a spinal disease that requires her to wear a neck brace.
However, Arroyo won bail in July this year, with the court saying the case against her was weak.
She was rearrested early this month on the charge of conspiring to defraud the state lottery to finance an election campaign and could face life in jail if found guilty.
Arroyo has been allowed to remain at the same military hospital since being hit with the vote fraud charge.
She was placed on intensive care this month to clear a blockage that prevented oxygen supply to her heart. She is now recovering from that condition.
Arroyo is also facing a third graft charge involving a deal with a Chinese telecommunications firm in which her husband allegedly received kickbacks in exchange for her approving a national Internet broadband network.
Court resolutions to these cases are expected to drag for years in the Philippine’s slow justice system.