How an ally betrayed Arroyo

PUBLISHED : Monday, 21 November, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 21 November, 2011, 12:00am


An accused mass murderer currently detained in a maximum security cell in Manila set off the chain of events which led to Friday's arrest of ex-Philippine president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

Zaldy Ampatuan - suspected of organising and participating in the massacre of 58 people, including 34 journalists, in Maguindanao, southern Philippines in 2009 - had been in jail for two years awaiting arraignment. Suddenly, in July, he gave an interview where he said Arroyo had cheated in the 2007 elections.

Arroyo's critics had long voiced suspicions she had manipulated elections. In fact, Ampatuan asserted, he and his warlord family had been ordered by the president to rig the vote. Ampatuan claimed that the cheating in Maguindanao helped Arroyo candidate Juan Miguel Zubiri win a seat in the national Senate.

His interview probably would not have received serious attention if another witness being sought by authorities hadn't immediately surfaced and confirmed the story. According to Lintang Bedol, election supervisor for the southern province of Sultan Kudarat, there had been cheating for Arroyo's senatorial candidates in the 2004 and 2007 elections.

Initially the Arroyo camp scoffed, calling the claims self-serving. According to the ex-president's spokesman, Raul Lambino: 'They are trying to save their own skin.'

However, a recount by the Senate Election Tribunal indicated that there had been cheating in Zubiri's favour. Before it could issue its report, Zubiri abruptly quit in August, tearfully claiming in a farewell speech that if he had won because of cheating he didn't know about it.

The candidate whose votes had been stolen, Aquilino Pimentel III, assumed Zubiri's vacated seat and vowed to go after the 'mastermind' of the poll fraud. He had long accused two provincial election officials, Lilian Radam and Yogie Martirizar, of poll fraud. After Zubiri resigned the two suddenly said they wanted to become state witnesses.

They both signed affidavits which not only said they helped fix the vote for Arroyo's candidates, but also that they were protected by government forces. They said the lawyer who defended them against poll fraud charges was Arroyo's own election lawyer, Alberto Agra, later her justice secretary. Agra himself had come under public criticism when, as justice secretary, he tried to drop murder charges against Ampatuan.

These revelations prompted the Commission on Elections to conduct a joint investigation with the Department of Justice. Senator Pimentel immediately filed a complaint accusing Arroyo and others of electoral sabotage. Pimentel named Martirizar, Radam and Bedol as his witnesses.

During the investigation, 14 poll officers and a technician who worked on computerised voters lists came forward to testify. But the star witness was Norie Unas, right hand man of the Ampatuan patriarch, Andal Snr. Unas swore that he had accompanied Andal Snr to a dinner inside Malacanang presidential palace days before the 2007 elections.

At that dinner, Unas said Arroyo - in front of her husband Mike - personally told former Maguindanao governor Andal Snr: 'You should produce a 12-0 result in Maguindanao [in favour of her 12 senatorial candidates], even if you have to rearrange or change the results.'

Upon her lawyer's advice, Arroyo has said nothing about the charges. Last Monday the Arroyos were scheduled to submit counter-affidavits to the investigation, after which the case would be deemed submitted for resolution.

But her lawyer, Ferdinand Topacio, instead asked the Supreme Court to void the results of the investigation, which he branded 'a kangaroo court'. The investigation rejected his request. Topacio then denounced the 'railroading' of the investigation and walked out.

Five days later, last Friday, the Commission on Elections used the investigation results to charge Arroyo with electoral sabotage. It submitted the formal complaint to Pasay City Regional Trial Court Judge Jesus Mupas, who immediately issued an arrest warrant.