Former Philippine President Gloria Arroyo has entered a “not guilty” plea to a charge of election fraud. The success of the current administration’s anti-corruption drive hinges on a case that some are calling historic.
Arroyo arrived at the Manila-area courthouse in a tinted van flanked on either end by heavily armed police officers.
Police tried to keep journalists at bay as scores of photographers crowded in for a shot of the smiling Arroyo, dressed in a cream-colored suit and wearing a neck-brace. Arroyo has been detained in a veteran’s hospital with a spinal condition. Inside the courtroom the former Philippine president said, "Not guilty" when a judge asked for her plea.
Her husband’s attorney, Ferdinand Topacio attended the hearing. He says the plea bodes well for the Arroyo camp.
"[We’re] very hopeful. This is the first step towards acquittal…," he said.
Topacio says the arraignment means the case can move forward without any delay.
The Philippine Commission on Elections accuses Ms. Arroyo of graft for improperly helping congressional allies win the 2007 elections. The commission says all 12 of the candidates she supported for Senate won in parts of the southern island of Mindanao, without contest.
An election official and former Maguindanao province governor Andal Ampatuan Sr. also face charges they helped rig votes to bring in the favorable numbers. Ampatuan is currently being held in a Manila-area jail on charges he masterminded a massacre in Maguindanao that left at least 57 people dead in November 2010.
Arroyo’s successor, President Benigno Aquino, has made cleaning up corruption his priority. In a statement, presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda said the arraignment means the administration is closer to putting an end to what he calls “many controversies that have hounded the country [since] her administration.”
"At this time of reckoning is it incumbent upon all of us to remain vigilant and observe this process as it unfolds," he said. "We must remain mindful of how in the past there were those who moved heaven and earth to prevent this day from arriving. Accountability escapes no one."
The Philippine justice secretary says there are two electoral sabotage cases and three plunder cases against Arroyo.
A conviction in the case against Arroyo would be a victory for the Aquino administration, which has stressed that cleaning up the government would entice multinational companies that say the corruption is a major deterrent for investment.