Cover image via Rappler

The Philippine Supreme Court yesterday dismissed plunder charges against former president Gloria Arroyo, setting her free after nearly five years of detention.

Voting 11 to four, the court ruled that the evidence against Mrs Arroyo, 69, was insufficient, and ordered her immediate release.

She was accused of stealing 399 million pesos (S$12.2 million) from the state lottery firm when she was president from 2004 to 2010.

Mrs Arroyo, who is serving a third term as a lawmaker, was first arrested in November 2011, after she was charged with allegedly rigging the 2007 elections.

She was held at the Veterans Memorial Medical Centre because she had been suffering from debilitating neck arthritis.

She was allowed to post bail in July 2012, but was again arrested and held under hospital arrest in October that year over the state lottery theft allegations in a case filed by an anti-graft court under then President Benigno Aquino.

In a statement, Mrs Arroyo’s husband, Mr Mike Arroyo, said the Supreme Court’s ruling “has validated what we have been saying for six years now: that the charges against former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo are nothing more than disingenuous attempts at political persecution by a corrupt and inept Aquino administration intent on covering up its gross lack of accomplishments by harassing its political opponents”.

President Rodrigo Duterte, 71, had earlier offered to pardon Mrs Arroyo in her capacity as a former president. But she declined, insisting that a pardon meant admitting guilt.

Mrs Arroyo had been among the first politicians to back Mr Duterte’s bid to become president.

A United Nations working group on arbitrary detention earlier described Mrs Arroyo’s continued detention as arbitrary and in violation of international law.

The UN report said the cases filed against Mrs Arroyo were “politically motivated since she is detained as a result of the exercise of her right to take part in government and the conduct of public affairs”.

Her case was taken up by Mrs Amal Clooney, a human rights lawyer and wife of the Hollywood actor George Clooney.

Mrs Arroyo was elected vice-president in 1998 and became president after a bloodless popular revolt cut short the term of President Joseph Estrada.

In 2004, she won a controversial presidential election marred by allegations of widespread vote-rigging, which she denied.

But allegations of electoral fraud and corruption haunted her time in office, helping propel her arch-critic, Mr Aquino, who ran on an anti- corruption platform, to power.

The plunder charge involving the state lottery firm was the only case that went to court.

Duterte spokesman Ernesto Abella said the President “recognises the High Court’s independence”.

Senator Leila de Lima, who was justice minister under Mr Aquino and built the case against Mrs Arroyo, said the court’s decision was “unfortunate”.

“While we have yet to ascertain and assess the full effect of this decision, I am 100 per cent sure that this is demoralising or disheartening to most of us,” she said.