Philippine court sets date for verdict on Estrada

Fri Sep 7, 2007 12:31am EDT

MANILA, Sept 7 (Reuters) - A Philippine anti-graft court will pronounce the verdict in a plunder case against deposed President Joseph Estrada next week, court officials said on Friday.

The court issued an order to national police chief Oscar Calderon to produce Estrada, 70, in court at 9 a.m. (0100 GMT) on Wednesday, Sept. 12 to hear the verdict.

Estrada, who was overthrown in an army-backed revolt in 2001, faces life imprisonment if found guilty and the government fears that poor voters, who swept him into office by a record margin in 1998, could riot in Manila.

Estrada has maintained he is innocent of charges of stealing up to $80 million from state coffers while in power.

"I am confident that I will be acquitted if the court would only base their decision on the merits of the case," he told Reuters in a telephone interview on Thursday from the country villa where he is detained.

"They have failed to present any strong evidence to support these fabricated charges."

If Estrada is cleared it will rattle President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who was his vice-president and was propelled to power on the strength of the corruption charges.

The three-judge bench at the Sandiganbayan anti-graft court completed hearings in the six-year case in June.

State prosecutors submitted 626 pages of case summaries based on the testimony of 76 witnesses and documentary evidence, arguing they had presented enough proof to establish Estrada's guilt with "absolute certainty".

Estrada's lawyers presented 276 pages of summaries from about 80 witnesses, disputing the prosecution evidence and arguing the state had failed to prove the charges of taking gambling payoffs, tobacco tax kickbacks and unreported income from hidden businesses.

Estrada took the witness stand 11 times from March to June 2006, denying the corruption charges. He has said the charges were politically motivated.

Renowned for his "midnight cabinet" of drinking and gambling buddies while president, Estrada says the mass street protests that drove him from office were engineered by the country's elite and a group of generals and Catholic bishops.

In March, a close associate of Estrada pleaded guilty to corruption and was sentenced to at least two years and four months in jail.

Atong Ang, who said he helped Estrada divert $2.6 million of tobacco taxes for the former president's personal use, was later freed on parole.