MANILA (Updated 10:02 a.m.) -- Former Commission on Elections (Comelec) chairman Benjamin Abalos pleaded not guilty Tuesday to graft charges filed against him in connection with the botched US$329 million national broadband network (NBN)-ZTE deal.

Abalos made his plea before Sandiganbayan 4th Division, which set the pre-trial of the case at 8 a.m. on September 6, radio reports said.

The former Comelec official said he is confident the anti-graft court will junk the case filed against him due to lack of evidence.

"The absence of competent, clear, and convincing evidence to substantiate the allegations against me constitutes mere accusations founded on speculations," he said.

Abalos, along with Social Security System President Romulo Neri, were charged by the Office of the Ombudsman for violating the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act in connection with the NBN deal entered by the government with the Chinese firm ZTE Corporation in 2007.

Under the botched NBN-ZTE agreement, the project will be financed by the Export-Import Bank (Exim) Bank of China under the terms of three percent annual interest and 20 year repayment period inclusive of a five-year grace period.

The original NBN contract with ZTE for US$329-million was signed by former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo on April 20, 2007 in Hainan, China.

Since its signing, the Department of Transportation and Communication has not disclosed the details of the contact, which was signed in a bid to save the government about P3.4 billion yearly in telephone bills.

In the case, Abalos was accused of trying to bribe Neri, who is then the chief of the National Economic and Development Authority, in exchange for his approval of the contract.

Neri, on the other hand, was accused of approving the deal despite knowledge of supposed irregularities in it. He also pleaded not guilty to the charges last July.

Neri's case is pending in another division of the Sandiganbayan. Pre-trial on his case is set next week. (Sunnex)