Estrada denies intention to flee

MANILA, Reuters

The Philippines said on Sunday it had ordered police, airports and ports to block any attempt by ousted president Joseph Estrada to leave the country and avoid potential prosecution for allegedly plundering the economy.

But Estrada dismissed the suggestions.

“Those are all rumors,” he said in an interview with ABS-CBN Television.”I have said time and again, I was born here, I live here and I will die here. I have no intention whatsoever of leaving the country.”

Justice Minister Hernando Perez issued the alert following a Supreme Court ruling on Friday dismissing Estrada’s claim that he was still the country’s legitimate leader and therefore immune from prosecution.

Perez also said if he were Estrada’s lawyer he would advise him to try to escape because the evidence against him was “very strong”.

Ombudsman Aniano Desierto said on Saturday it would be decided by Monday whether to file charges against Estrada over a range of alleged offenses including bribery, corruption, perjury and economic plunder. Plunder is punishable by death.

The former movie actor, who has repeatedly proclaimed his innocence, said he was surprised by Friday’s court decision.

“I was a bit shocked because legal luminaries said I had a strong case,” Estrada told reporters on southern Mindanao island, adding it was his right “if I should feel depressed”.

The former president, forced from office by a popular revolt in January when his impeachment trial collapsed, is currently on southern Mindanao island helping his wife campaign for a Senate seat in the May legislative elections.

Air Transportation Office chief Anacleto Venturina told Reuters his office, as well as all police agencies around the country, had received orders from the Department of Justice “to prevent the departure” of Estrada if he attempted to leave. Charter flights watched

Perez said in a radio interview all private ports around the country had been ordered to keep watch for Estrada.

Companies operating chartered flights have been alerted. “We have told them that if they allow their aircraft to be used by the former president to escape, that their planes will be impounded upon their return,” the Justice Secretary said.

“If I were his lawyer, I would advise him to escape because I know the evidence against him. It’s really very strong. It will be difficult for him to get out of it … He really has to hide,” Perez said.

President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, swept into power by the January 20 ousting of Estrada, said the Supreme Court decision removed “any and all doubts” that had clouded her presidency.

“The verdict should inspire us and spur us to seize the moment. Many diverse problems are hounding us and we don’t have the luxury of time,” Arroyo told reporters on Saturday.

Justice Francis Garchitorena, chief of the anti-graft court which would try Estrada if charges were formally filed, said the filing of a plunder case — a non-bailable offense — against the ex-president would not mean he would be immediately arrested.

He said the court would need to first review the prosecution case and see if there was probable cause or sufficient evidence.

“(Under) the constitution, no order of arrest should be issued unless the judge is convinced there is probable cause,” Garchitorena said in a television interview.

The Supreme Court rejected Estrada’s contention that he was merely on leave from the presidency and that Arroyo was only an “acting President.”

The investigation by the Ombudsman was spurred by accusations that Estrada had received bribes from illegal gambling syndicates and amassed about 10 billion pesos (US$206 million) in ill gained wealth during his 31 months in office.