Manila security forces prepare for Estrada verdict

Tue Aug 28, 2007 4:25am EDT


By Manny Mogato

MANILA, Aug 28 (Reuters) - A Philippine court will pass judgment in the plunder trial of deposed President Joseph Estrada in less than three weeks, with the political temperature sure to rise in Manila whatever the verdict.

Estrada, a former film star turned politician, was ousted in an army-backed popular revolt in 2001 that propelled President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo to power.

After a six-year trial, officials said on Tuesday that a verdict would be delivered on or before September 15.

Estrada faces life imprisonment if found guilty of stealing up to $80 million and president and security officials fear that poor voters, who swept him into office by a record margin in 1998, will start riots in the capital.

They are expected to hold protests regardless of the outcome, and around 8,000 soldiers and anti-riot police officers are on standby for deployment ahead of the verdict.

"We're prepared for any contingency," Avelino Razon, deputy chief of the national police, told Reuters.

If Estrada is acquitted it will rattle Arroyo, who came to office on the strength of the corruption charges.

Also, she has failed to shake off allegations that she cheated in the 2004 polls to defeat a pro-Estrada opponent.

Later on Tuesday, the Senate will vote on whether to re-open an inquiry into the alleged cheating after reports resurfaced in newspapers of a taped conversation Arroyo allegedly had with an election official that year.

Arroyo's allies control the lower house of Congress, ruling out the prospect of a successful impeachment attempt against her, but if a Senate inquiry goes ahead it will mean yet more embarrassing headlines and hold up the passage of legislation.

Arroyo, whose final term runs out in 2010, has already survived two impeachment attempts in 2005 and 2006 due to her supporters' overwhelming majority in the lower house.

Rumours have long swirled around Manila that Arroyo will pardon Estrada if he is found guilty.

But Estrada, who remains a political force due to his grassroots popularity and is currently detained at a luxury villa in the east of the capital, has indicated he would not accept a pardon.

In March, a close associate of Estrada pleaded guilty to corruption and was sentenced to at least two years and four months in jail after he promised to return 25 million pesos he stole from state coffers. He was later freed on parole.