MANILA (Reuters) - A Philippine court entered a not guilty plea for former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo on a plunder charge on Monday, a case that will be a litmus test of the government’s ability to tackle entrenched corruption in the poor Southeast Asian nation.
Arroyo, 65, who ruled the Philippines from 2001 to 2010, sat silently beside her family and lawyer during the arraignment hearing while charges that she had misused state lottery funds from 2008 to 2010 were read to the court.
She could face a maximum sentence of life in prison if she is sent to trial and found guilty.
The court entered the not guilty plea on her behalf after she and her lawyer did not respond to the charge. Arroyo, wearing a pink shawl over a light pink dress and a neck brace, arrived in court in a wheelchair, smiling for photographers. She had two spinal operations two years ago.
“We do not recognise the court’s jurisdiction over this case,” Raul Lambino, a lawyer and spokesman for the former president, told Reuters. Lambino, also a member of the lower house of Congress, said the case was “political persecution”.
“She is sad over this case,” he said, adding that Arroyo has a petition before the Supreme Court questioning the validity of the case and the court’s jurisdiction to hear it.
Prosecutors accuse Arroyo and nine officials from the state lottery agency of misusing around 366 million pesos ($8.88 million) in sweepstakes funds, accusing them of transferring the money to an intelligence fund for her use.
Arroyo also faces separate corruption charges for her alleged role in the misuse of public funds and kickbacks from a multi-million telecommunications deal with China’s ZTE Corp. The public broadband deal was aborted in 2007. She is also on trial for electoral fraud.
She denies all the charges.
The plunder case is central to President Benigno Aquino’s pledge to tackle endemic graft that threatens to dampen rising business confidence on the Philippines.
Arroyo is currently under arrest at an army hospital. Her lawyer has also asked the court to grant her bail, as well as leave to visit the graves of her parents on November 1, when Filipinos traditionally pay respect to their ancestors.
Police whisked Arroyo back to the army hospital after the hearing. During the separate bail hearing, which she did not attend, her lawyer argued the evidence against the former president was weak.
Aquino is enjoying high approval ratings after his government’s success in cracking down on corruption, including the impeachment of the Supreme Court chief justice. He says corruption pervades public life, keeping tax revenues low and hurting efforts to alleviate poverty.
A number of procedural steps follow Monday’s hearing, with a pre-trial hearing to start on February 14, 2013.
Dozens of Arroyo’s supporters gathered outside the courtroom, chanting, singing and holding placards and banners. They were watched closely by about 400 police.
($1 = 41.2250 Philippine pesos)
Reporting By Manuel Mogato; Editing by Rosemarie Francisco and Paul Tait