Manila (Philippine Daily Inquirer/ANN) - Former President and now Pampanga Rep. Gloria Arroyo waves to her supporters outside the gate of La Vista subdivision in Quezon City, where she lives.
She walked free from eight months in detention yesterday after a court granted her bail on the ground that the electoral sabotage case against her was weak. But her freedom may be short-lived.
"Thank God," former Philippine President and now Pampanga Representative Gloria Arroyo, 65, said before exchanging embraces with a small group of relatives and friends gathered in her room at Veterans Memorial Medical Centre (VMMC) in Quezon City in Metro Manila.
That 's vintage Gloria Arroyo, one who kept strong when others showed weakness, her only daughter Lourdes "Luli" Arroyo-Bernas said.
Several senators, however, said Arroyo could be detained anew sooner than expected for the nonbailable charge of plunder that was filed earlier this month in connection with the misuse of Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office (PCSO) intelligence funds.
"Once the Sandiganbayan issues another warrant of arrest in relation to the plunder case, she will go back to prison," said Senator Francis Escudero, chairman of the justice committee.
Senate President Pro Tempore Jose "Jinggoy" Estrada joked that Arroyo should have left behind her clothes at VMMC.
"She might be back very soon," said Estrada, who himself once faced a plunder case but was later acquitted in connection with the jueteng funds pocketed by his father, former President Joseph Estrada.
Senator Teofisto Guingona III, chairman of the blue ribbon committee, said the evidence gathered by his panel during its hearings on the multimillion PCSO funds that went missing during Arroyo 's incumbency "is very strong."
Setback for Palace
"We must remember that she has never denied her participation in the approval (of the release) of huge amounts of money. Her marginal notes of approval are on record, clearly affirmed and testified to by Rosario Uriarte, former general manager of the PCSO," Guingona said.
Administration senators, who took part in the investigation, later insinuated that the PCSO intelligence funds were used to finance the campaign of Lakas-Kampi candidates in the 2010 presidential elections.
The granting of bail represented a major setback for President Benigno Aquino, who had said that bringing his predecessor to justice for crimes she allegedly committed while in power was crucial to his high-profile antigraft campaign.
Arroyo 's spokesperson, Ferdinand Topacio, described the ruling by the Pasay Regional Trial Court as "a triumph of justice and a resounding denial of dictatorship" that proved her earlier assertions of innocence.
"It is a reaffirmation of what our camp has been saying all along,"
Topacio said, before borrowing from a quote by the late US President Abraham Lincoln. "That the charges against the former President are as thin as the soup made from boiling the shadow of a chicken that had been starved to death."
Arroyo was arrested at St. Luke 's Medical Centre in Taguig City in November last year shortly after immigration authorities prevented her at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport from leaving the country.
Aquino said Arroyo was trying to flee to escape imminent charges against her, although she said she needed specialist treatment overseas for her spinal ailment.
Arroyo was charged shortly after with "electoral sabotage" for allegedly conspiring with a feared political warlord to rig the 2007 senatorial elections.
She was transferred to VMMC, where she had been detained while awaiting trial. No date has yet been set for the start of the trial, which could take years to complete.
Out on bail
The Pasay City RTC, which is hearing the case, said yesterday that the case against Arroyo was weak, and that she should be released on a 1-million peso bail (US$23,700).
However, the court said she could not leave the country and would still stand trial for the offence.
"The court believes that the prosecution failed to establish with the required quantum of proof that conspiracy exists on the part of accused Arroyo," said Judge Jesus Mupas of Pasay City RTC Branch 112.
Mupas said the credibility of a former Maguindanao provincial administrator, Norie Unas, the only witness to implicate Arroyo in the case, was "tainted with doubt".
Unas testified that he had overheard then President Arroyo order a coaccused, then Maguindanao Governor Andal Ampatuan Sr., to ensure the victory of the administration 's senatorial candidates.
Others accused of electoral fraud were Election Supervisor Lintang Bedol and former Commission on Elections Chairman Benjamin Abalos.
At a press briefing, Pasay City RTC spokesperson Felda Domingo said that after a careful examination "the court doubted Unas ' testimony," which was the only evidence linking Arroyo to the case.
"It is not sufficient for us to render a resolution against her petition for bail," Domingo said.
Shortly before 10am, two of Arroyo 's lawyers brought to court 10 bundles of 1,000-peso bills amounting to a million.
It took an hour for the Office of the Clerk of Court employees to count and check the bills before a receipt of the cash bond was forwarded to the RTC branch.
Arroyo was not exactly jubilant when told that she could leave her hospital suite where she had been under arrest since December last year.
"I was the one who was emotional because whenever she saw that her family was emotional, she 's the one who remained strong. That 's what happened," Arroyo 's daughter Luli told GMANewsTV.
"I cried even if I wasn 't the one who was supposed to cry. I hugged her tightly.... I couldn 't believe that she now has a chance to defend herself," she said.
She said the past months had not been easy. "We placed ourselves under the process of the law, knowing that so long as it is followed, we can show that she is innocent."
Before her release, Arroyo was prayed over by Bishop Efraim Tendero, one of her spiritual advisers who read her the Scriptures. The message was not unrelated to her temporary victory: the Lord will "never leave thee, nor forsake thee."
Also in the hospital suite at that time were Luli, her month-old son Juan Alvaro, and her uncle Art Macapagal. More guests poured in especially after the release order was finally served.
But Tendero, national director of the Philippine Council of Evangelical Churches, said the mood was more of surprise than festive.
"They couldn 't believe that the petition (for bail) was granted and that she could now leave," he recalled in a phone interview with the Philippine Daily Inquirer.
Topacio tweeted about the arrival of Arroyo 's eldest son, Representative Juan Miguel Arroyo, and later, the sheriff who was to serve the release order.
The lawyer also reported the arrival of Representative Girlie Villarosa, a close confidante of Arroyo, saying Villarosa was "demolishing chocolate cake."
Tendero said Arroyo considerably lost weight, visibly thin in her dark grey dress. Luli said her mother now weighed less than 100 pounds.
"We really want her to rest first," the daughter said, shortly before accompanying her mother back to the family residence at La Vista subdivision in Quezon City.
Once she 's fit, Arroyo could attend the budget hearings set next month, said House Minority Leader Danilo Suarez.
Vice President Jejomar Binay expressed confidence that the administration would again take steps against Arroyo.
"I am certain that the government will exhaust all legal options. Let 's wait for developments," Binay said in a statement.
When he was mayor, Binay led multisectoral protests against Arroyo in his turf in Makati City and called for her ouster amid allegations that she was involved in rigging the 2004 presidential election.
With reports from Tarra Quismundo and AFP
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