RP prosecutors focus on plunder

MANILA, Reuters

Philippine prosecutors dropped five of eight criminal charges against deposed president Joseph Estrada on Tuesday so they could concentrate on the main charge of economic plunder, which is punishable by death.

Ombudsman Aniano Desierto said that his office had filed a formal notice before the Sandiganbayan anti-graft court withdrawing the five charges but added it was “subject to approval” by the court.

“The withdrawal was intended to allow the prosecutors to train their cannons on the main plunder charge,” Desierto told reporters.

In a separate development, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo brushed aside “civil war” warnings from supporters of Estrada, saying such a threat did not bother her and it would have no effect on the economy.

Estrada, a former film star whose power base is among the country’s urban poor, was ousted in January at the height of people power street protests triggered by corruption allegations. He denies any wrongdoing.

Economic plunder is a capital, non-bailable offense under Philippine law which means an accused will be automatically jailed upon issuance by a court of a warrant of arrest, legal experts say.

The prosecutors allege Estrada amassed more than four billion pesos (US$80 million) in office far in excess of his annual salary.

“In a tactical move aimed at further solidifying the plunder charge against former president Joseph Estrada, the public prosecutors … filed today with the (anti-graft court) formal manifestations withdrawing five criminal information on lesser offenses,” Desierto said.

The dropped charges involve allegations Estrada took bribes from illegal gambling syndicates, pocketed millions of pesos in excise taxes and received a large commission from the purchase by two state pension funds of shares in a property and gaming firm.

Desierto said the five charges they had withdrawn were already “subsumed” in the economic plunder case and pursuing the cases separately could lead to prolonged delays of all the cases.

Besides the plunder case, the prosecutors are also pursuing a perjury charge and another involving using an alias in maintaining bank deposits.

Estrada, replaced by Arroyo, who was his vice president and main rival, says the charges against him are fabricated.

On Monday, the anti-graft court ordered his arrest on twin charges of graft and perjury, but the former president turned himself in and posted bail.

The division of the anti-graft court that will hear any plunder case still has to decide whether he has a case to answer.

No-one has been convicted of plunder in the Philippines and no-one has addressed the issue of whether a death sentence would be carried out. No-one has been executed since Arroyo took office and she has commuted several death sentences to jail terms.

Estrada deplored the atmosphere at the anti-graft court when media pursued him as he posted bail and court officers took his fingerprints. “This was just a small thing but they wanted to humiliate me,” he said in an interview over radio station dzEC.

Estrada also opposed suggestions by the Ombudsman’s office for his trial to be covered live by radio and television.

“I don’t want that. The owners of TV networks are among the elite and they will turn it into a circus. They will only air negative things about me,” he said.

Estrada urged his followers to remain calm. “I am leaving my fate in the hands of the Lord,” he told them.

Scores of his supporters have mounted a round-the-clock vigil outside near his Manila home, saying they will not allow him to be jailed.

A senator in Estrada’s political coalition campaigning for a seat in the May 14 legislative elections has said a “civil war” would erupt if Estrada were arrested.

“Malacanang (the presidential palace) is not bothered,” Arroyo told reporters. “There will be minimal effect on the economy. The effect on the economy would be worse if we were not to pursue justice.”

Asked what her wishes were for Estrada, who turns 64 on Thursday, Arroyo said: “I hope he will find peace in his heart.”