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Former president Arroyo pleads not guilty to vote fraud
Former president Gloria Arroyo of the Philippines pleaded not guilty to election-rigging in a Manila court on Thursday. President Benigno Aquino has accused Arroyo of conspiring to rig a 2007 vote as well as other acts of corruption.
AFP - A smiling ex-Philippine president Gloria Arroyo pleaded not guilty Thursday to rigging an election, denouncing the charge that could see her jailed for life as part of a relentless vilification campaign.
Arroyo is accused of conspiring with a feared political warlord to rig the 2007 senatorial elections, one of many corrupt acts her successor, Benigno Aquino, alleges she committed during her near-decade in power.
"Not guilty," Arroyo, 64, told the judge in a tiny Manila courthouse while wearing a neck brace to support her spine that she says is weakened from a rare disease.
Arroyo smiled and waved to a crowd of journalists before and after her court appearance in a show of good spirits, despite her reported ill-health and having been detained for nearly three months in a military hospital.
She then issued a statement via her spokeswoman insisting that Aquino was unfairly targeting her.
"Despite the continuous and massive vilification campaign against me and my family, I have always said that I will dispute all charges in the proper forum," Arroyo said.
Aquino, the son of democracy heroes, won a landslide election victory in 2010 on a vow to fight corruption that has plagued Philippine society for decades but which he said worsened dramatically during Arroyo's reign.
Aquino has said prosecuting Arroyo and many of her allies is the top priority of his anti-graft campaign, insisting that it will only succeed if the most powerful violators are held to account.
"We want to send a stern yet simple message: justice evades no one. There are no exceptions in our campaign against corruption," Aquino said on Tuesday.
Three weeks after Arroyo's arrest in November, Aquino's allies in the lower house of parliament also impeached Supreme Court chief justice Renato Corona on charges of corruption and protecting the ex-president with favourable rulings.
The Senate is now conducting a lengthy trial to determine if the impeachment was valid and whether Corona, appointed by Arroyo just before she stepped down in 2010, should be sacked.
The historic prosecutions have raised political tensions in the Philippines, with the events dominating news coverage.
However in a country where political turmoil has regularly boiled over into mass street protests in recent decades, few people have so far taken to the streets in support of Arroyo and Corona.
On Thursday, just a few hundred supporters of Arroyo rallied near the court, and they dispersed peacefully after the arraignment.
Prosecutors allege Arroyo ordered that ballots in 2007 elections be switched in the southern province of Maguindanao so that one of her allies won the final position available in the nation's Senate.
Arroyo is alleged to have conspired with then-Maguindanao governor and close political ally Andal Ampatuan Snr to tamper with the ballots.
Ampatuan Snr, who had a reputation as a ruthless political warlord, is a co-defendant in the vote-rigging case.
He is also facing multiple murder charges for allegedly organising with his relatives the massacre in 2009 of 57 people in Maguindanao to stop a rival's election challenge, an event that forced Arroyo to end their alliance.
Aquino has vowed to file many more charges against his predecessor.
She was already hit in December with a second criminal charge in relation to a $330-million telecom deal with a Chinese firm, in which her husband and a political ally allegedly received kickbacks.
Arroyo, who is now a congresswoman after winning a parliamentary seat in the 2010 elections, was transferred to a military hospital shortly after her arrest.
No date has been set for Arroyo's trial, which could take years to complete. She has asked to spend the intervening time under house arrest, but for the time being she will remain detained at the military hospital.