Philippines Opens Impeachment Trial
MANILA, Philippines (AP) _ The Philippine Senate began its impeachment trial of President Joseph Estrada on Thursday, with prosecutors charging he took millions of dollars in kickbacks through a ``criminal syndicate directed from the highest office of the land.″
Tens of thousands of people marched outside as the trial began, demanding the former movie star’s ouster even if he is acquitted of the corruption charges that have thrown the Philippines into a political crisis.
Influential opponents, including former President Corazon Aquino and Manila’s Roman Catholic archbishop, Jaime Cardinal Sin, said Estrada should quit now, sparing the nation a long, divisive trial. Protesters waving big ``Erap resign″ signs rallied outside a church for a march toward the Senate. ``Erap″ is Estrada’s nickname.
The scandal erupted in October when a provincial governor, Luis Singson, alleged he gave the president more than $8 million in money skimmed from illegal numbers games and $2.6 million from tobacco taxes. Singson is a reputed lord of the illegal numbers game ``jueteng″ played throughout the Philippines.
The lead prosecutor, Rep. Feliciano Belmonte, said on Thursday that Estrada ``violated the law, not once, not twice, but regularly like clockwork,″ despite taking an oath of office that required him to work for the people _ not his relatives and cronies.
Estrada has said he is innocent. He said he’s putting his faith in God and ``the sense of fairness and justice of the senators″ who must decide his fate.
Big groups of Estrada supporters were also turning out Thursday, and thousands of police were deployed to maintain order in the capital.
Lawyers expect the trial to run at least into mid-January as they work through evidence on four charges: bribery, corruption, violating the constitution and betraying the public trust. It would require a vote of two-thirds of the 22 Philippine senators to convict Estrada on any charge. One conviction would force him from office.
Rep. Sergio Apostol, who will prosecute Estrada on the bribery charge, vowed Thursday to ``expose the existence of a criminal syndicate directed from the highest office of the land, which is the gangland mob that threatens to rule us.″
Filipinos are riveted by the prospect of a juicy political drama that could include testimony from some of Estrada’s mistresses.
Estrada, a self-styled champion of the poor, has reportedly fathered seven children with five women other than his wife.
Critics have focused on mansions inhabited by some of the presidential mistresses, saying they were acquired with unexplained wealth. Estrada has denied purchasing the homes, but the 11 congressmen serving as prosecutors want a fuller explanation.
Estrada may command the support of enough senators to survive the trial, but critics vow to keep fighting him regardless.
If Estrada clings to power, reconciliation could severely challenge the impoverished Southeast Asia island nation, which has a political and legal system closely modeled after that in the United States, which controlled the Philippines for a half century.
Estrada’s trial is being conducted along the same lines as the trial that acquitted President Clinton last year of charges he lied to the courts over an affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
Aquino called Thursday for Estrada to quit immediately. Manila’s archbishop agreed, saying during a morning Mass that Estrada should step down, arguing that ``resignation is a heroic act and only brave men do that.″
``Do not be afraid of the truth,″ Sin said. ``The truth is you have lost the moral ascendancy to govern us.″
Among Estrada’s defenders is Imelda Marcos, the former first lady who gained international notoriety when the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos was ousted in 1986 and the world learned about her thousands of shoes.
Estrada also has loyal followers among millions of Filipino slum dwellers, but he has alienated the nation’s influential Roman Catholic Church leadership and the business community. The Estrada crisis hit the stock market badly when it broke in October, and the local currency, the peso, has weakened sharply against the dollar.
``We should now change Estrada because of his womanizing and his involvement in illegal gambling,″ agreed Lourdes Ramos, a 48-year-old suburban housewife and anti-Estrada marcher.
Presidential press secretary Ricardo Puno said Estrada was in ``good spirits″ early Thursday.
``He is quite confident that the evidence as presented so far will not substantiate a conviction,″ Puno told reporters.