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Ex-Philippine president convicted of taking bribes

Joseph Estrada, who was ousted in 2001, gets a life sentence and must return $15.6 million and a mistress' mansion.

September 12, 2007|Sol Vanzi and Paul Watson | Special to The Times

MANILA — A court today found former Philippine President Joseph Estrada guilty of taking more than $85 million in bribes and kickbacks, and sentenced him to life imprisonment, six years after he was ousted amid mass protests and military defections.

The court also ordered Estrada to hand over $15.6 million and a mansion he built for a mistress.

The 70-year-old former action-film star who was elected president in 1998 is a hero to millions of poor and homeless Filipinos. President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo's government deployed 6,000 police around the court, and put the military on alert in case of unrest. But supporters who gathered at a church said they would remain peaceful.

Arroyo, who was Estrada's vice president before his 2001 ouster, has the power to pardon him, but the former president insists he won't accept amnesty because he is innocent. He believes Arroyo was part of a conspiracy to overthrow him.

Members of Estrada's family, including his wife and daughter, broke into tears as the verdict was read, but the deposed president sat grim-faced.

"The real losers here are the Filipino people and the justice system," said Estrada's son Sen. Jinggoy Estrada. "It is sad that the verdict was based on testimonies of polluted witnesses, and not on evidence. This verdict was intended to justify the unconstitutional removal from office of President Estrada in 2001."

Estrada's lawyer said he would appeal the verdict.

"This should serve as a warning to those in power, including the members of the Arroyo family and administration," said Father Jose Dizon, an activist priest. "This could happen to them also."

Estrada was found guilty of plunder, involving the receipt of more than $11 million in protection money from an illegal betting ring and the embezzlement of nearly $3 million in tobacco taxes. The anti-corruption court found him not guilty of perjury, and acquitted Jinggoy Estrada and attorney Eduardo Serapio.

A bank executive and lawyer testified that Estrada signed bank documents under the name Jose Velarde for an account that held more than $68 million. Estrada claimed he did so as a form of guarantee for payments made by the account's real owner to a businessman.

Estrada's government began to unravel in 2000, after provincial Gov. Luis Singson, a self-confessed racketeer and one-time drinking buddy of Estrada, said he had paid the bribes to Estrada. That year, Estrada became the first president to be impeached by the country's House of Representatives. His impeachment trial in the Senate later collapsed.

Arroyo took power with the backing of the military after mass protests seeking Estrada's resignation. She was elected president in a 2004 election rife with accusations of vote-rigging; her administration has been dogged by corruption charges.

Estrada, a notorious playboy, lived the high life during the trial, holding parties at his "rest house," a luxurious vacation home two hours from Manila equipped with a theater, gym and library, according to media reports. The court said Estrada could continue to live in his vacation home "until further notice" and requested he agree "voluntarily in writing to abide by the same disciplinary rules imposed upon convicted prisoners."

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paul.watson@latimes.com

Special correspondent Vanzi reported from Manila and Times staff writer Watson from Jakarta, Indonesia.

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