Police on alert for rallies by Estrada supporters

MANILA, Reuters

Philippine police were on high alert on Sunday in case supporters of former president Joseph Estrada take to the streets if he is arrested on a charge of economic plunder, an offense punishable by death.

Police spokesman Colonel Rodrigo de Garcia said there were no reports of major rallies by Estrada’s supporters on Sunday but police were well prepared.

“The rally is not being held right now, but there are threats that rallies will be held,” Garcia told Reuters.

“We have a contingency plan…we are on red alert.”

Estrada enjoys significant support, especially in the country’s slum communities. He has appealed to his supporters to stay calm.

De Garcia said police also had plans to reinforce major points of exit from the country, in case Estrada tried to flee.

Estrada faces eight charges ranging from economic plunder, a non bailable offense, to graft.

He denies any wrongdoing and has vowed not to flee from the country but to fight the charges in court.

The increased security measures came amid speculation that the arrest of the disgraced former leader, who was forced from office in January by a popular revolt, may occur soon.

The anti-graft court’s presiding judge, Francis Garchitorena, ruled out on Friday any moves at the weekend, but did not say when any warrant might be issued.

Justice Secretary Hernando Perez told reporters on Friday he was confident the anti-graft Sandiganbayan court would issue an arrest warrant on the economic plunder charge as early as Monday because a five-day suspension of its issuance sought by Estrada’s lawyers would have lapsed by then.

“The prosecution predicts that (arrest on Monday), of course, the earliest time possible, because they submitted all the evidence in this case and we were certain there would be probable cause, a basis for order of arrest,” government ombudsman Aniano Desierto told ABC-CBN News Channel on Sunday.

Estrada’s lawyers complained on Sunday the continuous stream of media reports about “impending” arrest was a disinformation campaign by the government ahead of May congressional elections.

“This disinformation may actually have some tactical undertones. It’s a tactic called ‘testing the waters’,” Estrada’s defence lawyer Raymund Fortun told reporters.

Jake Acuna, one of Estrada’s campaign coordinators said air security officials barred Estrada from taking a helicopter even to nearby Pampanga province for a political rally on Sunday.

“The Aviation Security Group told The Air Transportation Office not to let him land by chopper,” Acuna said.

Speaking to reporters at the weekend, Estrada again appealed to his supporters not to resort to violence if he is arrested.

“Whatever happens, I am placing my fate in the hands of God,” he said.

In an interview with The Philippine Star newspaper published on Sunday, Estrada said he had received reliable information his arrest order would be served either on Monday or Tuesday but he had no plan of becoming a fugitive.

He reiterated that he was prepared to go to jail, but said he could still avoid arrest if the evidence against him was weak.

“I’m ready (to go to jail) as long as it is…in accordance with the law,” he told the newspaper.

The former movie actor also said if the prosecution failed to present strong enough evidence, it would make the case bailable.

“That is prescribed by our laws. (An arrest order) is not automatic because probable cause has to be determined by the Sandiganbayan (anti-graft court),” he told The Star.

Besides plunder, Estrada faces seven other charges including taking more than 500 million pesos (US$10 million) in bribes from illegal gambling syndicates and earning 189 million pesos in commission from the purchase by two state pension funds of shares in a gaming firm.