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Philippines on alert ahead of Estrada verdict
September 11, 2007 / 11:45 PM / in 10 years

Philippines on alert ahead of Estrada verdict

By Raju Gopalakrishnan

MANILA, Sept 12 (Reuters) - Police encircled the Philippine presidential palace and the anti-graft court on Wednesday as Manila braced for a long-awaited verdict in a case of plunder against former President Joseph Estrada.

The government fears that supporters of the 70-year-old movie star, who was ousted in an army-backed revolt in 2001, could riot if he is pronounced guilty, as is widely expected.

Estrada smiled and waved at reporters before he left his villa outside Manila, where he is being held in custody, for the courthouse. The verdict was due at 0100 GMT.

He has said he is innocent but appears resigned to a guilty judgment.

"I'm ready for any verdict," the once-infamous playboy president told the BBC.

The peso PHP= has slipped over one percent against the dollar this week and the stock exchange .PSI has stayed firmly in the red as investors sold Philippine assets amid uncertainty over the verdict and the country's reaction to it.

Demonstrations were banned from the vicinity of the anti-graft court, where 1,200 police in riot gear have taken up positions. A Catholic priest said Mass for the officers outside court before dawn.

"Soldiers are on request. At the moment they are in their HQ. We will call them if needed," said senior superintendent Magtanggol Gatdula.

Estrada was impeached for corruption in 2000 and was turfed out of office after the impeachment trial collapsed in the Senate.

But he remains a figurehead for opposition groups and, fearing a repeat of 2001 when pro-Estrada mobs tried to storm the presidential palace, half of the capital's 15,000 police have been deployed in potential trouble spots.

President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who was Estrada's vice-president and was propelled to power on the strength of the charges against him, has been advised to stay inside the palace, which has been fortified with barbed wire and army trucks.

COLOURFUL

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

The charges include taking commissions in the purchase of shares by government insurance funds, payoffs from gambling lords, diverting tobacco taxes for personal use and maintaining a bank account under a false name. The perjury charge relates to misrepresentation on earned income.

Estrada, hero of the downtrodden during years as a matinee idol, has called the charges trumped up and says he was hounded out of office by a coalition of the elite, including senior army officers, corporate leaders and Catholic bishops.

Roilo Golez, a former national security adviser, said that if Estrada was acquitted it would be a burden for the government.

"We'll have a political giant on the loose," he said.

Estrada is one of the most colourful characters in the rambunctious world of Philippine politics.

Born Joseph Ejercito to a well-to-do Manila family he dropped out of school in his teens, was thrown out of home by his father and took the name Estrada from a telephone book.

He shot to movie stardom at 24 and in 1998 was elected president by a record margin.

His win was viewed as a turning point in national politics because Estrada was not a member of one of the traditional political dynasties.

But his 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.

Estrada has never denied that he was fond of wine or women, but has said that was part of his movie star life, and that he gave it all up when he became president. (Additional reporting by Manny Mogato, Rosemarie Francisco and Karen Lema)



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