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Lawmakers impeach Philippines' Supreme Court chief justice

MANILA (Reuters) - The Philippine Congress impeached the country’s chief justice on Monday as allies of President Benigno Aquino lined up behind his drive to root out corruption.

Philippine Supreme Court Chief Justice Renato Corona gestures during a news conference at the Foreign Correspondent Association of the Philippines (FOCAP) in Manila January 20, 2011. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco/Files

A total of 188 members of the 285-seat House of Representatives lower house signed an impeachment complaint against Chief Justice Renato Corona on the grounds that he betrayed public trust and violated the constitution.

Aquino accuses Corona and the court of bias in favour of former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, the focal point of the president’s campaign to eliminate graft.

Corona will go to trial in the Senate upper house next year. Before the outcome of the parliamentary vote was disclosed, he vowed to fight on and uphold the court’s independence.

Legal officials suggest an impeachment could pitch the country into a battle between the executive and the judiciary.

But the president’s allies saw the vote as an important moment in exposing what they see as his predecessor’s endemic corruption.

“This is an important step in holding former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo accountable for her crimes against the people,” Teodoro Casino, a leftist member of Congress, said in a statement.

“We need to hold (the chief justice) accountable for the long list of anti-people rulings he supported to favour his patron, Arroyo.”

Arroyo, president in 2001-2010 and now a member of Congress, appointed Corona as chief justice a week after last year’s election that voted Aquino in but before he actually took power.

Arroyo is under guard at a hospital after her arrest on charges of electoral sabotage. She denies the charges and her lawyers have asked the Supreme Court to overturn an arrest warrant against her.

Corona is the first member of the judiciary to be impeached, but lawmakers believe he may resign to avoid embarrassment. In April, the head of the anti-graft agency, an Arroyo ally, resigned after she was also impeached in Congress.

Aquino, son of venerated former president Corazon Aquino, remains popular 18 months after being elected and hopes public opinion will place an additional burden on Corona to quit.

The president says the Supreme Court has blocked efforts to pursue Arroyo after it ruled against the creation of a truth commission on her activities in office.

The court also overturned a travel ban imposed by the government on the former president as she was about to fly out of Manila airport for medical treatment.

The leader of a small opposition bloc, Edcel Lagman, said the government had offered various funds as inducements to persuade lawmakers to support the impeachment motion.

Aquino’s allies disputed the allegations.

Hours before the impeachment vote, the chief justice talked about a “secret plan to oust me from office by any means fair or foul”, threatening to destroy democratic institutions.

“I want you to know that your chief justice continues to be in command and will lead the fight against any and all who dare to destroy the court and the independence. We shall not meekly walk away,” Corona told a gathering of court employees.

Reporting By Manuel Mogato; Editing by Ron Popeski