Manila: Former Philippine president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo pleaded not guilty to an electoral fraud charge on Thursday at the opening of a landmark trial that is seen as a key test of her reformist successor`s campaign to stamp out corruption.
Arroyo, president from 2001 to 2010, is accused of rigging the results of senatorial polls in 2007 to favour her candidates. The electoral sabotage charge is the first of several criminal cases being prepared against her.
"Not guilty," she told the court in a soft voice and with a stoic expression after her defence team waived a full reading of charge details. If convicted, she could face life in prison.
The stakes are high for both Arroyo and President Benigno Aquino III.
Aquino risks losing public support if she is acquitted and his rallying cry of "no corruption, no poverty" may fizzle out as just another failed attempt to fix the graft and poor governance that have hounded the nation for decades.
Arroyo`s acquittal would vindicate a former leader who has portrayed her prosecution as a political vendetta to destroy her reputation and mask Aquino`s failure to improve the lives of Filipinos, a third of whom lives on USD 1 a day.
"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 in a statement, adding she wants to clear her name.
She promised to respect the law and said she expects the same from the country`s leaders.
The electoral fraud case against the former president centres on a notoriously corrupt southern Philippine region where all 12 of Arroyo`s Senate candidates swept all the votes and no opposition candidate won.
According to the charges, there are witnesses who said Arroyo gave instruction to rig the vote in collusion with a powerful political clan leader, Andal Ampatuan Sr Ampatuan is on trial facing murder charges in connection with the 2009 politically motivated massacre of 57 people, including 32 journalists and opponents. He has pleaded not guilty.
Arroyo`s husband, Miguel "Mike" Arroyo, said that his wife "feels the case is an injustice”.
"There is no case here," he added.
He said his wife is frustrated, and still suffering from spine and back pain that he said requires medical treatment abroad. After her appearance, which lasted about 10 minutes, Arroyo was escorted under tight security from the courtroom to a military hospital where she is detained while being treated for the spine ailment.
Court spokeswoman Felda Domingo said the trial is historic because "the votes of the people were sabotaged and the accused is a former president”.
Aquino has promised to root out corruption and said that no one should be allowed to evade justice.
"There are no exceptions in our campaign against corruption," he said in a speech on Tuesday. "It shouldn`t matter if you are a former president or in the lower ranks of public service. If you are dishonest, then you must be held to account."
Arroyo`s arrest in November struck chord among many Filipinos hungry for accountability following her presidency, which was overshadowed by scandals, coup attempts and botched congressional hearings into corruption allegations involving Arroyo`s officials and family members.
Apart from the electoral fraud charge, Arroyo is facing a second criminal case in a separate court over an overpriced deal with a Chinese telecommunications giant that allegedly involved huge kickbacks. Two more cases are being filed against her — for the alleged plunder of lottery funds and the alleged diversion of USD 17 million in state funds to boost her 2004 election.