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Philippine Court Sentences Former President to Life in Prison


Former Philippine President Joseph Estrada has been sentenced to life in prison for receiving bribes and kickbacks while in office. The sentence came after a six-year-long trial. Douglas Bakshian reports from Manila, where thousands of police and other security forces are on alert in the event of any public unrest.

The 70-year-old former movie star remained defiant after the sentence was handed down by the Sandiganbayan, or anti-graft court, on Wednesday.

Estrada said he had thought justice would prevail, but instead he received what he called a "political decision" from a "kangaroo court" (a rigged proceeding).

"This is the only forum that I can ventilate (express) myself and show the people my innocence," he said. "Despite that, I think the decision is already dictated by those people on top. It is a political decision."

Estrada was charged with "plunder" for allegedly amassing millions of dollars in bribes and funds from illegal gambling while in office. He was convicted of that charge, but acquitted of a separate charge that he falsely declared his assets.

Special prosecutor Denis Villa Ignacio called the verdict a victory for the judicial system, and the country.

" We are happy that we were able to show that the system works," he said. "Today we were able to show that you can charge, you can prosecute, you can even convict an accused no matter what his rank is, or how popular he is in the country."

Outside the courthouse, several hundred Estrada supporters waved banners and gave anti-government speeches, but the gathering was peaceful. Thousands of police and other security forces were on duty in Manila to guard against unrest.

Estrada, a former actor, was elected in 1998 by a huge margin. He was popular among the country's poor masses, who knew him from movie roles in which he played the hero of the underdog, and he still retains a measure of popularity despite the charges against him.

During his time in power, Estrada was known for late night drinking and card games in the presidential palace, behavior that undercut his popularity. He was toppled by a popular revolt in 2001 with the backing of the military.

Estrada has always denied the charges against him, and has accused President Gloria Arroyo, who was his vice president, of engineering his ouster in a conspiracy with the military and the powerful Roman Catholic Church.

Estrada will appeal his verdict to the anti-graft court, and the case is also due for automatic review by the Supreme Court. Before the verdict, he said he would not accept a pardon from Mrs. Arroyo.

Estrada will not go to prison immediately. The court allowed him to return to his villa outside of Manila, where he has been under house arrest.

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