In a Landmark Case, Former Philippine President Joseph Estrada Gets Life in Prison on Corruption Charges
by Imelda V. Abaño
"It is a political decision…I am innocent!" cried the 70-year-old already ousted Philippine President Joseph Estrada after he was convicted of corruption on a massive scale. He was sentenced to life in prison by an anti-graft court last Wednesday.
The court found Mr. Estrada guilty of plunder - a capital offense - in a 262-page decision, though the former president will avoid the death penalty as it was recently abolished. He was acquitted of the perjury charges that alleged he had falsely declared his assets.
Under Philippine law, a public officer who accumulates at least $50 million pesos ($1.064 million USD) in illegal wealth is guilty of plunder. Estrada was charged with using a fictitious name on a bank account along with receiving over $80 million (USD) in kickbacks from tobacco taxes, commissions from the purchase of shares by a government insurance fund and payoffs from illegal gambling operations.
The court also ordered the confiscation of several of his properties worth $87 million (USD), including mansions that he acquired while in power. Estrada is also permanently disqualified from holding any public office.
Estrada's co-accused, his son Senator Jose "Jinggoy" and his lawyer Edward Serapio were both acquitted of their plunder charges.
A former movie star, Estrada won the presidency in 1998 in the largest landslide victory in Philippine history, with solid backing from the country's poor. But the recent case against him marks yet another bitter chapter in Philippine politics; this one began when he was ousted from power in 2001 in the midst of an impeachment hearing on corruption charges. Estrada's then vice president, now President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, was installed following massive protests against him.
"This court was created to convict me. I always expected that this will happen. We will appeal the decision to the higher court," said Estrada, who has been under house arrest for more than six years.
The former president will not be sent to prison immediately. Instead, the court has allowed him to remain under house arrest until further orders are issued.
"I am happy because at last, justice has prevailed,” says former Provincial Governor Luis Chavit Singson, a principal witness in the plunder case. “Jailing Estrada should serve as a warning to public officials who are guilty of graft and corruption."According to political analyst and attorney, Edwin Lacierda, the anti-graft court conducted a fair trial. He says the trial is a triumph for the Philippine justice system as it shows that it can and will prosecute and convict a public official, regardless of his or her stature.
"It was a lengthy procedure. It took six years. [The] evidence is so voluminous. The justices appreciated [the importance of the] case," Lacierda says.
Alberto Lim, executive director of the Makati Business Club feels Estrada’s conviction will improve the business climate: "We in the business community welcomed the decision since it will bring closure to this controversial case. It proved to the international community that there is still a rule of law in this country, since we were able to convict a former President. This decision might create some political stability in the long run, but the government should not rest with this conviction – [they must also] implement reform measures."
In Manila, some 6,000 police officers were deployed throughout the city and students were sent home from schools in anticipation of major protests in the streets by Estrada supporters.
Barbed-wire fences, police and army vehicles along with container vans blocked the road near the courthouse. The roads leading to Malacanang, the home and office of President Arroyo, were blocked as well. According to police officials, these measures are currently needed in the capital to avoid the sort of mayhem that occurred in 2001, when more than 3,000 pro-Estrada protesters marched on the palace, killing four people and injuring hundreds more.
Despite police efforts at containment, roughly 2,000 protesters turned up on the streets anyway after the anti-graft court convicted Estrada.
"I am disappointed with the verdict. He has done nothing to be punished for. We will support him in this fight because we strongly believe he is really innocent," says 37-year-old carpenter Ruben Castillo, who marched in protest of Estrada’s guilty verdict.
A supporter and close friend of Estrada’s, actor Rez Cortez, says: "This is a very sad decision. We've always believed he is innocent. The civil society will not put an end to this. The present Philippine administration should now brace for more protest actions by Estrada's supporters."Just two weeks ago, a public survey was released showing that almost half of Filipinos in Manila and the nearby provinces feel the Arroyo Government should pardon Estrada.
Commissioned by the political opposition, the survey showed that 48 percent of Filipinos want an immediate pardon, while 38 percent want him to be pardoned only "after some time”.
When asked to comment on the outcome of the survey, Estrada said that he won't accept any offer of pardon. "My conscience is clear," Estrada told journalists. "Getting pardoned is an admission of guilt.”
Philippine Senate President Manuel Villar Jr. says he is saddened by the guilty verdict. "I pray that he gets the justice that he richly deserves. The genius of our justice system works when we bestow faith in it. I am certain, given another day in court, President Estrada will get justice."
Estrada's trial is undoubtedly a landmark in the history of Philippine politics.
The man most Filipinos simply call "Erap" (meaning friend), will always be a hero of the masses, even after being found guilty of plunder. But even if the Filipino people have already acquitted him, as Estrada now claims, nonetheless he must ultimately accept the court's decision.
Plunder – defined by the law as the highest level of corruption—is an extremely serious crime. As such, reclusión perpetua (permanent imprisonment) might be considered stiff by some, yet it is undeniably a fair punishment.
This landmark case sends a clear message not only across the Philippines but throughout the world that the law applies to everyone, even former presidents. But Estrada is not giving up so easily and says he will “exhaust all legal means to fight for justice, even if it means going to the Supreme Court."
About the Author
Imelda Visaya-Abaño, began her journalism career in 1998 as a reporter at the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the leading daily newspaper in the Philippines. Her areas of interest are women and children's issues, science, environment, health, agriculture and education.
In 2002, Ms. Abaño was honored as the Asian Winner of the Global REUTERS-IUCN Media Awards on Environmental Reporting.
Ms. Abaño vows to continue serving her community through balanced news and fearless views. She believes in better journalism for better communities.