MANILA - Former Philippine President Joseph Estrada was convicted yesterday of the crime of plunder and sentenced to life in prison, more than six years after he was kicked out of office by a “people power” revolution.
But the 70-year-old former movie actor’s lawyers said they were appealing the verdict and the Sandiganbayan anti-graft court said it will allow him to spend his jail time under house arrest until further notice.
"Judgment is hereby rendered ... finding the accused former President Joseph Ejercito Estrada guilty beyond reasonable doubt of the crime of plunder," the Sandiganbayan said in its decision.
Estrada was charged with four counts of corruption, involving diversion of funds amounting to about 4 billion pesos ($85 million) during his term as president. Estrada assumed office as president in January 1998 and was ousted in January 2001.
The court found him guilty on two counts, of receiving payoffs from illegal gambling and taking commissions in the sale of shares to government pension funds. He was cleared of two charges of maintaining a bank account in a false name and of diverting tobacco taxes to his own use.
Estrada was also charged with perjury, related to an alleged misrepresentation of earned income, but was found not guilty.
His son Jinggoy, now a senator, and lawyer Edward Serapio were found innocent of plunder.
The court ordered Estrada to forfeit a mansion and more than 731 million pesos ($15.5 million), plus interest, that were deposited into two bank accounts.
Sandiganbayan Justice Teresita Leonardo de Castro said Estrada would be detained at his 15-hectare villa in Tanay town in Rizal province, east of Manila, until further orders.
After meeting with his lawyers at the Sandiganbayan, Estrada was immediately brought back by helicopter to his vacation villa in Tanay.
Estrada was also disqualified from holding any public office.
A grim-faced Estrada expressed disappointment over the conviction despite admitting that he had expected the guilty verdict.
"I thought the rule of law will prevail here, but this is really a kangaroo court," he told reporters in a brief interview after the verdict was handed down. "This is a political decision."
"I assure you that I remain calm even if my lawyers and I disagree with the findings and conclusions of the court," Estrada said in a written statement.
"This conviction, however, did not come as a surprise to us. We have expected this."
"I am innocent of all the charges," he added. "The prosecution miserably failed to prove its case. I am at peace with myself, notwithstanding the guilty verdict, because you my beloved countrymen have overwhelmingly acquitted me."
Rep. Rufus Rodriguez, a close ally of Estrada and one of his spokesmen, said the former president and his family were "very, very sad" about the decision.
"The president is very, very disappointed," he said. "The whole family is crying in the holding room." Outside the Sandiganbayan, the guilty verdict was met by boos and cries from hundreds of Estrada supporters.
“It’s victors’ justice. It’s ruling class justice. The special division (of the court) was programmed to convict. We never had a chance,” said Estrada’s lawyer, Rene Saguisag.
“While the other countries are moving forward and developing, we’re not. Look at our justice system,” Estrada told reporters. Earl Parreno, a Manila-based political analyst, said Estrada’s core supporters could yet whip up trouble when he is sent to prison.
“If Estrada will be handcuffed, brought to prison, wearing an orange suit and that is shown on national television, that will have a very big impact on the Filipino people emotionally,” he said. “It is the calm before the storm.”
At the Sandiganbayan, the guilty verdict was met by boos and cries from hundreds of Estrada supporters.
"We are dismayed by the Sandiganbayan's decision," said Rex Cortes, one of the leaders of Estrada's supporters. "We call on the Filipino people to mourn the death of justice in our country."
Justice System Works
State Prosecutor Dennis Villa-Ignacio said he was "satisfied" with the decision.
"This shows that the judicial system really works," he told reporters after winning the biggest corruption trial in the country.
"This is not an issue of politics; it's a matter of evidence." "We established through very strong evidence that there is plunder," he added.
President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo said her government would "bow to the decision of the Sandiganbayan." "We hope and pray that the rule of law will prevail," said Arroyo's spokesman Ignacio Bunye.
"Meantime, we have a country to run, an economy to grow and a peace to win. We hope that this sad episode in our history will not permanently distract us from these goals."
Fears of Violence Unfounded
Fears that a guilty verdict could trigger widespread street protests and possible riots in Manila seemed misplaced. Pro-Estrada activists staged scattered low-key demonstrations in the city of 12 million people but all were peaceful. The crowd was far smaller than the thousands predicted and riot police sent to guard against them snacked and chatted. Some sat down, their shields by their sides.
“We pity him but what can we do?” asked a woman who was among the protesters.
Analysts and oppositions groups said the show of police force was an overreaction by a government fearful of a repeat of 2001, when pro-Estrada mobs tried to storm the presidential palace.
Investors were relieved that the verdict was out and the reaction muted.
“It seems like there was no violent reaction so far so that is why investors are taking advantage of the bargain prices in the market,” said Astro del Castillo, director of the Association of Securities Analysts of the Philippines.
“This is one thorn off our back.” The peso strengthened to 46.70 against the dollar from its close of 47.12 on Tuesday. It had fallen more than 1 percent earlier in the week amid uncertainty over the judgment. The stock exchange closed 1.21 percent up.
While Estrada's supporters quietly dispersed after the former president was brought back to Tanay, hundreds began to mass at the financial district of Makati later in the afternoon for an indignation rally.
Makati Mayor Jejomar Binay, a political ally of Estrada, said more protests were expected in the coming days as supporters of the former president recover from the shock.
"We were expecting a conviction but it's still different after hearing it," he said. "But this is not over. The president's lawyers are appealing the conviction, and more protests can be expected." (With a report by Agencies)
What OFWs in the Kingdom Feel About Estrada’s Conviction
(Interviews by Francis R. Salud, Bien Custodio and Ronald Concha)
Arab News conducted random interviews with Filipinos in the Kingdom to get their reaction to the Sandiganbayan’s “guilty” verdict on the plunder case of former President Joseph Estrada. Here’s what they say:
Carl Tabbu, physical therapist in Al-Kharj: The prosecutors and the justices did a job well done. It only proves that no one is above the law. But considering Estrada’s age and health, he deserves to be granted clemency. After all, he has already served six years in prison.
Lilia S., native of Calauan, Laguna and working in Jeddah: I prayed that Erap be set free but since the court found him guilty, so be it. But they should also send to prison all those bigtime crooks.
Ramon Garces Serolf, data clerk coordinator, Riyadh: The masses love Erap. I’m one of them and I can’t believe that he was convicted. The administration is afraid of him and so they want to lock him up in jail. This (Arroyo) is so corrupt and they are making Estrada a scapegoat).
Larry G. Cabago, project engineer in Yanbu: I think the decision was fair and not a political one. Estrada’s followers should accept the fact that he committed a big sin.
Jun Viray, diving instructor, Jeddah: He committed a crime; he should face the consequences. That’s the rule of law. And it should also apply to all other corrupt officials in government.
Henry Endradora, administrator in Riyadh: I believe Joseph Estrada is guilty of all the charges filed against him even if there were some loopholes as he was only convicted of plunder and cleared of perjury.
Lito Llave, a supervisor at Danube Supermaket, Jeddah: Tama lang ‘yong nangyari sa kanya (It’s just right that he was convicted).
Mike Manaloto, employee of Orbitz, Jeddah: While it (conviction of a former president) is not good for the image of the Philippines, it sends the right signal to other would-be grafters that his example is not one to be emulated.
Nelia Santiago, househelp, Jeddah: Kapalaran n’ya ang sinapit n’ya. Tanggapin na lang n’ya (It’s his fate. He should accept it).
Vivien Condes, medical technologist, El-Maghraby Medical Center, Jeddah: I pity him but that’s the law.
Arnel Punzalan, an architect in Jeddah: Pandarambong, or plunder, is a major crime in the Philippines, and crime does not pay.
Reynaldo Lagrimas, fire fighting safety technician, Jeddah: What plunder are they talking about? Corruption is even worse in Gloria Arroyo’s government. Why did they stop investigating the Jose Pidal and Diosdado Macapagal Highway scandals of the present government and the Centennial Project of Fidel Ramos?.
Bernard Ronquillo, Bakker Othaim: We should respect the decision of the court. Let Estrada appeal if he wants to.
Raul Negradas, customer service executive, Jeddah: “The verdict is just an indication that there’s still justice in Philippines, regardless of one’s status. I hope the verdict will also translate into something positive in relation to our economic well-being as a nation.
Raymond Araneta, club attendant of InterCon Hotel, Riyadh: Let’s just pray for his safety. He has suffered so much.
Jake Domile, supervisor in Jeddah: Erap is a courageous man. He was offered asylum elsewhere, but he opted to fight it out. That’s an indication that he is not guilty as charged. His conviction has a negative impact on OFWs. Our reputation as a nation has been damaged further. He should be pardoned.