Philippine ex-president guilty of plunder

By Carlos H. Conde
International Herald Tribune

The New York Times
Published: September 12, 2007

MANILA: A Philippine anti-corruption court on Wednesday convicted Joseph Estrada, the former president, of illegally acquiring wealth while in office and sentenced him to a maximum of 40 years in prison.

The court, called the Sandiganbayan, found Estrada guilty of plunder but acquitted him on a perjury charge. Estrada’s son and co-accused, Senator Jose Estrada, was acquitted on both charges.

The court also ordered the confiscation of several properties, including mansions, that Estrada acquired while in power, as well as hundreds of millions of pesos in two bank accounts. The court also ruled that Estrada was permanently disqualified from seeking public office.

The plunder case stemmed from allegations that Estrada received more than $85 million in kickbacks from tobacco taxes, commissions from the purchase of shares by a government insurance fund, payoffs from illegal gambling operators, and for using a fictitious name in a bank account. The perjury case was for allegedly misstating his income and assets.

“I thought the rule of justice would prevail here, but it’s really a kangaroo court,” Estrada told reporters minutes after the verdict was read. “I have always expected that this will happen,” he added.

Estrada, 70, has been in detention for more than six years now. He was ousted in an uprising in 2001 that arose from allegations of corruption, as well as accusations of womanizing and heavy drinking in the presidential palace.

The charges deeply offended the Catholic Church, leading it to organize, along with so-called “civil society” groups and leftist organizations, massive demonstrations against Estrada. President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who was Estrada’s vice president, took over the presidency in 2001 after the military withdrew support for him amid growing public protests dubbed People Power II. The original People Power revolt removed former President Ferdinand Marcos in 1986. Estrada had been in office for only two years.

Estrada, a former movie star who is hugely popular among the masses, has repeatedly denied the allegations against him, saying these were politically motivated. He accused the country’s elite, the Catholic Church, and civil society groups for conspiring against him. The uprising, he claimed, was a power grab.

Talking to reporters through a window at the courthouse after the verdict Wednesday, Estrada said he had hoped that, because an impeachment trial in Congress had been cut short by the “People Power” uprising, he could present his side at the Sandiganbayan. He said he had thought the court “was the only forum where I can ventilate myself and tell the people of my innocence.”

After his removal from power, the government created a special court in the Sandiganbayan to try Estrada. He suggested Wednesday that the court had been manipulated.

The verdict, Estrada said, was a “decision dictated by those people in power” as well as “a political decision.” He said he would appeal the decision within 15 days.

Estrada’s lawyer, Rene Saguisag, said the former president was ready to serve time at Muntinlupa, the country’s main prison facility in Manila, but the court said Estrada could continue to stay at his place of detention, which is actually his vacation house in a province just outside Manila.

Hundreds of his supporters marched near the Sandiganbayan on Wednesday while the police and military were on full alert. Security was tight, particularly near and around the presidential palace, apparently to make sure that a siege by Estrada’s followers, like the one that took place in May 2001, would not be repeated.

Indeed, the government carefully managed the events Wednesday. It suspended classes in dozens of schools near the Sandiganbayan. It initially banned live media coverage of the proceedings, but the Supreme Court overruled the decision. However, only the court’s cameras were allowed inside the courtroom, and it transmitted only the video of the clerk reading the verdict during proceedings lasting less than 15 minutes.

The court also read only the portion of the decision where the verdict was declared – not the whole decision itself. Estrada’s camp later theorized that this was probably meant to make sure that the proceedings were short, leaving no time for protests to develop.

The crime of plunder is punishable by death or “reclusion perpetua,” a life sentence which carries a penalty of a maximum of 40 years. The death penalty was abolished in the Philippines a few years ago. Estrada will only be eligible for parole after 30 years.

“We bow to the decision of the Sandiganbayan. We hope and pray that the rule of law will prevail,” Arroyo’s spokesman, Ignacio Bunye, said in a statement.

While Estrada’s supporters were saddened by the verdict, many Filipinos welcomed it, saying that the conviction was a sign of democracy at work.

“This is the last chance for the state to show that we can do it, that we can charge, prosecute and convict a public official regardless of his stature,” said Dennis Villaignacio, the special prosecutor in the case.

Joe Dizon, secretary general of PlunderWatch, a nongovernment group that monitored the trial, said Estrada’s conviction was a step toward more transparency and accountability in government.

A movie star for 40 years, Estrada’s life story is as dramatic as those of the characters he had portrayed in his films, which explains his immense popularity among the poor.

He was considered the black sheep of the Ejercito family, a moneyed and influential clan in Manila. He dropped out of high school and was promptly thrown out of the Ejercito home by his strict father.

Outraged, the young man, according to tales often repeated here, stopped using his real surname and picked Estrada out of a phone book.

To further spite his parents, Estrada entered show business. It was in the movies that Estrada excelled, garnering awards for his acting in some of the country’s most memorable films.

About Carlos H. Conde

Researcher at Human Rights Watch (@condeHRW @hrw_ph). Former journalist (NYT, IHT, among others).
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