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Arroyo pleads not guilty to corruption charge

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Former Philippine president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and her husband have pleaded not guilty to corruption charges related to an overpriced deal with a Chinese telecommunications company in a second criminal case against her.

Arroyo, who is being held at a government-run hospital where she is undergoing treatment for a spinal ailment, was escorted from hospital to court on Wednesday by heavily armed police.

Arroyo was arrested last year on a separate charge of electoral fraud and subsequently indicted in connection with a $330m government contract with Chinese telecommunications giant ZTE Corp.

If convicted, the couple could face up to 10 years in prison.

A congressional probe found the 2007 contract overpriced and ridden with problems, including allegations that Arroyo's husband, Jose Miguel “Mike'' Arroyo, accepted bribes to push through the contract with his wife's approval.

Under public pressure, Arroyo cancelled the deal the same year. She left office in 2010 and faced a wide-ranging prosecution as part of a promise by her popular successor, President Benigno Aquino III, to uproot corruption.

The Arroyos accuse Aquino of pursuing a political vendetta.

Arroyo's lawyer, Laurence Arroyo, said his client was also diagnosed with shingles and went to the court against her doctor's advice.

“She wanted to face squarely already the charges against her and get the trial going,'' he said.

A former elections chief, Benjamin Abalos, also pleaded not guilty on Wednesday.

At the 2007 congressional hearing investigating the anomalous contract, Romulo Neri, a former economic planning secretary, testified that Abalos had offered him a bribe to approve the ZTE contract.

Jose de Venecia III, a losing bidder with connections to the Arroyos' inner circle, testified that the ex-president's husband was promised a $70 million commission, although ZTE has denied paying any kickbacks.

Arroyo then prevented top officials, including Neri, from continuing to testify in the probe and the issue was never properly investigated.

After Aquino took power, the Philippine ombudsman investigated and filed charges at the anti-graft court, which issued the arrest warrants.

The ZTE case has also tested the Philippines' relations with China, which Arroyo aggressively pursued. Aquino appears more lukewarm to Beijing amid a resurgence in territorial tensions over disputed islands in the South China Sea.


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