Philippines' Estrada gets life

MANILA Wed Sep 12, 2007 12:52am EDT

1 of 3. Former Philippine President Joseph Estrada waves as he leaves a court following his verdict at the Sandiganbayan anti-graft court in Quezon City, Metro Manila September 12, 2007.

Credit: Reuters/Romeo Ranoco

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MANILA (Reuters) - Former Philippine President Joseph Estrada was sentenced to life in prison on Wednesday after an anti-graft court found him guilty of plunder and barred him from holding public office again.

The 70-year-old movie star, who was ousted from power in an army-backed revolt in 2001, remained defiant after sentencing.

"I thought the role of justice would prevail here but really it's a kangaroo court," Estrada, wearing a traditional Filipino dress shirt and his trademark wristband, told reporters.

He will not be sent to prison immediately. The court has allowed him to return to his villa, east of Manila, until further orders.

Outside the courthouse around 300 supporters waved banners and made anti-government speeches but remained peaceful.

The crowd was far smaller than the thousands predicted and riot police sent to guard against them snacked and chatted in the morning rain. Some sat down, their shields by their sides.

Analysts and oppositions groups said the show of force was an overreaction by a government fearful of a repeat of 2001, when pro-Estrada mobs tried to storm the presidential palace.

President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who was Estrada's vice-president and was propelled to power on the strength of the charges against him, said the court's decision must be accepted.

"We hope and pray that the rule of law will prevail," her spokesman said in a statement.

Investors were relieved that the verdict was out and the reaction muted.

"It seems like there was no violent reaction so far so that is why investors are taking advantage of the bargain prices in the market," said Astro del Castillo, director of the Association of Securities Analysts of the Philippines.

"This is one thorn off our back."

The peso strengthened to 46.80 against the dollar from its close of 47.12 on Tuesday. It had fallen more than 1 percent earlier in the week amid uncertainty over the judgment.

The stock exchange was up 1.37 percent.

"VICTORS' JUSTICE"

"It's victors' justice. It's ruling class justice. The special division (of the court) was programmed to convict. We never had a chance," Estrada's lawyer, Rene Saguisag, said.

Saguisag said the infamous former playboy president would not try to delay his imprisonment.

"He has no intention of seeking special treatment." Estrada will appeal against the verdict to the anti-graft court. The case will also come up for automatic review at the Supreme Court.

Earl Parreno, a Manila-based political analyst, said Estrada's core supporters could yet whip up trouble when he is sent to prison.

"If Estrada will be handcuffed, brought to prison, wearing an orange suit and that is shown on national television, that will have a very big impact on the Filipino people emotionally," he said. "It is the calm before the storm."

Estrada was charged with plunder, made up of four counts of corruption, involving diversion of funds amounting to about 4 billion pesos ($85 million).

He was also charged with perjury, related to an alleged misrepresentation of earned income, but was found not guilty.

His son Jinggoy, a senator, was found not guilty of plunder.

Estrada was impeached for corruption in 2000 and was ousted after the impeachment trial collapsed in the Senate.

One of the most colorful characters in the rambunctious world of Philippine politics, Estrada's term in office was marked by reports of policy decisions taken after late-night drinking bouts, millions of pesos won or lost in gambling sessions and innumerable tales of mistresses and their lavish lifestyles.

The reports horrified the middle class and the powerful Catholic Church, but Estrada's long career as a matinee idol playing Robin Hood style heroes and his down-to-earth manner continue to endear him to poor voters.

"Erap (Estrada's nickname) is a symbol of the dreams and aspirations of the Filipino masses. We will continue to struggle for democracy and justice," said one supporter, Ver Tustauuio.

(Additional reporting by Raju Gopalakrishnan, Rosemarie Francisco and Karen Lema)

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