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Former Philippine President Appears in Court


Former Philippine President Joseph Estrada is due to take the stand for the first time Wednesday in his five-year-old corruption trial. He is accused of amassing $78 million through illegal gambling payoffs, tax kickbacks and commissions.

Joseph Estrada is accused of plunder, a charge that carries a possible death penalty. Prosecutors say he amassed tens of millions of dollars by collecting bribes, tax kickbacks and commissions. He is also charged with perjury charge for allegedly underreporting his assets.

He denies any wrongdoing, and in the past has said he does not expect his trial, which has been running since 2001, to be fair. Nevertheless, one of his lawyers, Raymond Fortun, says Mr. Estrada is taking the witness stand to set the record straight.

"The only reason he is appearing tomorrow is because he would want to put his statements in the history of this country," said Fortun.

Estrada was a film star before entering politics, and remains popular with poor voters who swept him into power in the 1998 elections.

But his behavior once in office, including late-night drinking and card games in the presidential palace, undermined his popularity. When a former cohort testified that he was paying Mr. Estrada kickbacks from illegal gambling, his opponents made their move.

He was driven from office in 2001 in a "people power" revolution, backed by the military, the bishops of the Catholic Church and the nation's powerful families. His then-vice president, Gloria Arroyo, stepped into the presidency.

Mr. Estrada has been under detention for five years, although in typical Philippine style, he has been allowed to spend much of that under house arrest in a sprawling vacation home, and has been allowed to host parties and leave for medical check-ups.

A protest is planned by his supporters Wednesday, and tight security is in effect at Manila's Sandiganbayan, or anti-corruption court, with about 1,000 riot police on duty.

Attorney Fortun says there will be only one day of hearings per week, and he says that Mr. Estrada's testimony and cross-examination might last into mid-May. Fortun says all closing arguments and motions in the case should be completed by September or October.

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