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Former Philippine President Denies Corruption Charges


Former Philippine President Joseph Estrada, in his first day of testimony at his corruption trial, has firmly denied allegations of corruption during his aborted administration. He is accused of amassing almost $80 million through illegal gambling, tax kickbacks and commissions.

Hundreds of supporters of former Philippine President Joseph Estrada chanting "Erap," Mr. Estrada's nickname.

They had come Wednesday to the Sandiganbayan, the anti-corruption court in a Manila suburb, to support their hero during his first day of testimony in his five-year-long trial on charges of plunder. A contingent of a thousand police kept them several hundred meters from the court building as a security precaution.

Inside, there was bedlam as Mr. Estrada, once a popular movie star, entered the courtroom. Television cameramen and photographers swarmed around the former leader, looking for a quick shot before they were shooed away.

No taping is allowed inside during the proceedings. The photographers were hustled out of the room and forced to shoot pictures through the windows on the courtroom doors instead.

Out in the street, Rez Cortez, a protest leader and movie actor, held out hope that Mr. Estrada would be acquitted.

"We believe that he is not guilty. We believe that he is a good president," said Cortez. "And even Sandiganbayan [anti-corruption court] cannot come up with the evidence that he really plundered this huge amount of money, and we believe and we know that he will be acquitted in this case."

The former President is accused of amassing tens of millions of dollars during his time in office by collecting bribes, tax kickbacks and commissions.

"A pack of lies", is how he responded when questioned about an allegation that he sought kickbacks from tobacco excise taxes. He insisted he had never asked for commissions, and said he could not steal money intended for farmers. He described the kickback allegations as a frame-up.

Mr. Estrada was elected in 1998 by the widest margin in Philippine history, but accusations of graft and corruption plagued his presidency. His behavior in office, including late-night drinking and card games in the presidential palace, also undercut his popularity.

An impeachment trial against him was aborted in 2000, but one year later he was driven from office by a popular revolt backed by the military - "convicted in the streets" he said on the witness stand. His vice president, Gloria Arroyo, took over the presidency.

It could be mid-May before Mr. Estrada finishes his testimony, because the hearing only runs one day a week. If found guilty, he could be sentenced to death. However, most analysts expect he will receive a prison sentence, or even that Mrs. Arroyo will pardon him in order to ease the tense political climate in the country.

She is under continued political attack herself, and was driven to impose a week-long emergency just last month to foil what she said was a conspiracy to oust her from office.

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