POSTED: 3:09 a.m. HST, Nov 18, 2011
LAST UPDATED: 5:19 a.m. HST, Nov 18, 2011
MANILA » Former Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo was arrested in her hospital room on electoral fraud charges Friday in a high-profile tug of war set off by her attempts to leave the country ostensibly for medical treatment.
Arroyo became the second ex-Philippine president to face trial, after her ousted predecessor Joseph Estrada was sentenced to life in prison for corruption and later pardoned by her.
Arroyo denies any wrongdoing and accuses the government of political persecution when it stopped her from leaving the Philippines for overseas medical treatment for a bone ailment. Her lawyer, Ferdinand Topacio, said the government had filed fabricated charges with "indecent haste."
The Supreme Court earlier Friday upheld her right to travel, but a lower court where the formal charges were filed later issued an arrest warrant that effectively bars her from leaving.
Arroyo, 64, has been recovering in a hospital since her failed attempt to leave the country Tuesday, and Justice Secretary Leila de Lima said she will remain confined to her hospital room.
"They are not going to, let's say, handcuff her and take her out of the room," de Lima said. "We will not object to hospital arrest."
In a drama that has galvanized the Philippines, Arroyo, sitting in a wheelchair and wearing a head and neck brace, was turned back Tuesday night from boarding a flight out of Manila. Authorities said she was still under investigation and might become a fugitive.
Her successor and staunch critic, President Benigno Aquino III, was overwhelmingly elected on promises to rid the Philippines of corruption and has said he wants to start with Arroyo.
The former president sought help from the Supreme Court, which issued a temporary clearance for her to travel and reaffirmed it Friday. But the government ignored the order, saying national interest and uncovering the truth were more important than an individual's right to travel.
"It is our desire that truth and accountability prevail and that the Filipino people be given the justice they truly deserve," de Lima told reporters.
"Justice has been served. It's very relieving," she said.
The election fraud charges filed Friday by the Commission on Election carry a maximum penalty of 40 years in prison. Arroyo legal spokesman Raul Lambino said the case against her "is a high form of injustice."
The charges stem from allegations that Arroyo conspired with officials to tamper with results of 2007 congressional polls to favor her candidates.
She was accused of having direct knowledge of massive cheating in an autonomous Muslim region in the southern Philippines, the country's poorest and notoriously corrupt region, where ballot boxes are switched en masse and voters paid or threatened to abstain.
A probe this year by the Senate Electoral Tribunal found that an Arroyo ally, Miguel Zubiri, benefited from fake ballots. He resigned his Senate seat in favor of an opposition candidate.
Two witnesses -- an election supervisor and a former governor of the Muslim region -- have alleged that Arroyo and her husband ordered election rigging to favor administration candidates like Zubiri.
Also charged Friday were ex-election supervisor Lintang Bedol, who is in government custody and wants to turn state witness, and Andal Ampatuan Sr., the former Muslim regional governor and patriarch of a powerful clan. Ampatuan, a former Arroyo ally, is on trial for allegedly ordering the 2009 massacre of 57 people, including 32 journalists and political opponents in the country's worst political bloodbath.
During her tumultuous nine-year presidency from 2001 to 2010, Arroyo ranked as the country's least popular leader and faced down several coup and impeachment attempts over corruption allegations.
Her most serious crisis came a year after she was elected in 2004, when a wiretapped recording surfaced of her talking to an election official allegedly about securing a vote margin for herself. She later apologized but said she did nothing wrong.
After stepping down last year, Arroyo, 64, was elected to the House of Representatives and immediately faced at least half a dozen legal complaints, including allegations that she diverted state funds for her campaign effort and benefited from foreign contracts.
The Justice Department is still investigating the other complaints.