Estrada to Hear the Verdict

On Wednesday, September 12, the biggest and most celebrated trial in the Philippines since the murder of Benigno Aquino in 1983 will come to a close, and the fate of deposed President Joseph “Erap” Estrada will be revealed, sort of. Adjudged guilty or innocent, the judgment won’t be the end of this exercise. Look for the appeals, the posturing and the spin to continue for years.

It has been six years since Estrada, who was elected with the largest victory margin in Philippine history, was forced out of office by a coalition of businessmen, church leaders and military officers. The overthrow cut short impeachment proceedings against Estrada and was proclaimed by enthusiasts at the time as People Power 2. Others saw it as a de facto coup backed by mob rule that set a dangerous precedent that cheapened the original People Power Revolt against Ferdinand Marcos in 1986.

Coup or popular democracy, it installed then-Vice President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo in office and left Estrada under house arrest facing charges of plundering the nation. Now the country’s anti-graft court will finally decide whether Estrada is guilty or not. The verdict will also cover Estrada’s son, Sen. Jinggoy Estrada, and their lawyer Eduardo Serapio.

Even six years after Estrada was dumped, it is still possible that his popularity with the Philippines’ poor — his power base — is strong enough to bring people into the street in the event of a guilty verdict. Professor Leonor M. Briones of the University of the Philippines adds that, based on the administration’s body language, “it looks like we’re preparing the public for a conviction.” Around 6,000 policemen and soldiers will be deployed in anticipation of massive street protests from Estrada’s still significant supporters.

Under Philippine law, a public officer who accumulates at least P50 million (US$1.064 million) in illegal wealth is guilty of plunder. Estrada — who promoted himself as the champion of the poor — is accused of stealing P4 billion from public funds. The figure includes about P545 million in bribes from illegal gambling operations, misappropriating P130 million from tobacco taxes, gaining P189.7 million from stock manipulation, and maintaining over P3 billion in ill-gotten wealth in a bank account under a fictitious name.

If found guilty, the 70-year old former actor, who is now detained at his sprawling rest house in Rizal, may spend the rest of his life behind bars. That is, if he rejects a possible pardon from President Gloria Arroyo.

A survey shows that the public, whose emotions may have already been diluted over the years, wants the former president to be pardoned if found guilty. According to the survey, which was commissioned by Estrada supporters, 48 percent of Filipinos want an immediate pardon in case of a guilty verdict, while 38 percent want him to be pardoned only “after some time.” The president’s office has thus far been silent on the issue.

Estrada has said that he won’t accept any offer of pardon. “My conscience is clear; I will not leave the 11 million Filipinos who voted for me,” Estrada has said in local newspapers. “Getting pardoned is an admission of guilt. I will exhaust all legal means to fight for justice, even if it means going to the Supreme Court.”

But the Supreme Court option does not necessarily bode well for him. A report by Manila’s Newsbreak magazine report shows that the justice heading the special division trying Estrada’s case, Teresita Leonardo de Castro, has yet to have a decision overturned by the Supreme Court. Also, only two of the 15 Supreme Court justices are Estrada appointees. In the politicized Philippine justice system, Estrada might have a chance if his appeal waits until after 2010, when a new president will be elected.

Government prosecutors say they are optimistic that a guilty verdict will come down on Wednesday. After presenting 76 witnesses and citing decisions in their favor over the years, prosecutors are confident.

Even Estrada’s camp, which is saying that an acquittal is warranted if the case is judged on its merits, has released statements that show they are prepared for an unfavorable decision. Aside from announcing that they will appeal to the Supreme Court in the case of a guilty verdict, defense counsel Rene Saguisag has said that they are already resigned to a conviction. “The alignment of the stars is against us. The whole system is against us,” Saguisag said.

“This is not an ordinary case where lady justice is blindfolded,” notes political analyst Earl Parreno. “Justice will listen to the higher interest of state stability.”

An acquittal would be a slap in the face of the current administration, which was placed in power under the assumption that Estrada was massively corrupt. A guilty verdict, on the other hand, risks triggering social unrest since Estrada remains a hero to many of the nation’s poor. A vulgar, hard-drinking womanizer, his personal habits as much as misconduct in office propelled large segments of the nation’s elite to want him removed from office. Corruption charges against Arroyo and her allies have also been raised persistently but she has had the votes in Congress and the support in the military to deflect attempts to oust her from power.

“The Sandiganbayan [anti-graft court] will try to come up with a win-win solution,” Parreno says. “A possible scenario is that they will acquit Estrada of plunder and convict him of a lower charge such as indirect bribery. Estrada will appeal this, but he can apply for bail. Plunder is non-bailable. He will remain in jail, and that’s an emotional issue for his supporters.”