Senators sadden with Erap verdict

PHILIPPINE NEWS SERVICE — Both administration and opposition senators yesterday said they were “saddened” by the guilty verdict on ousted President Joseph Estrada even as they pointed out that the legal battle for the deposed leader’s possible exoneration from the corruption charges has just begun.

Speaker Jose de Venecia, for his part, warned that “the inevitable appeal (of the verdict) to the Supreme Court will mean months of political tension that our country can ill-afford.”

The senators, at the same time, praised Estrada for the bravery and humility he had shown throughout the more than six years that he fought to prove his innocence.

But the senators — Senate President Manuel Villar, Rodolfo Biazon, Francis Escudero, Panfilo Lacson, Loren Legarda, Aquilino Pimentel Jr. and Manuel Roxas II, all from the opposition, and Pia Cayetano, Juan Ponce Enrile, Richard Gordon, Francis Pangilinan and Miriam Defensor-Santiago, all from the administration — conceded that the law had spoken and this has to be respected.

Their view was shared by Environment Secretary Joselito Atienza, who, however, took a dig at “those who object and reject the (verdict) to agitate the public are actually the same politicians who prosecuted and sentenced (Estrada) outside the rule of law in 2001.”

Gordon said Estrada is one of the “most popular presidents Filipinos have ever known, while Roxas, who served as the deposed leader’s Trade secretary,
said Estrada “not once did he ask me to do something indecent or irregular (for which) he has earned my deepest respect.”

Santiago, in particular, warned Estrada’s foes against adopting a triumphalistic attitude.”

“What goes around, comes around. So we have to be extremely careful and punctilious about the way we apply the statute book because we don’t want to set a precedent where after the term expires, every Filipino president now has to face an accounting before judicial forums. We certainly don’t want that to happen. Whatever it is, in terms of justice and sportsmanship and spirit of fair play that we hope for ourselves, we should be willing to grant to others. There has to be equal protection of the laws,” she said.

The verdict, according to President Arroyo’s chief lawyer Sergio Apostol, is a “good signal to everybody in public office that the Sandiganbayan and the Ombudsman are not joking (because they) are ready to prosecute plunder and corruption cases.”

When asked if the Chief Executive is “exempted,” Apostol said the opposition must present first strong evidence against her.

“She (Mrs. Arroyo) cannot be charged with plunder even if she steps down from power because she had not engaged in any corruption, she had not plundered the government,” he added.

Her Vice President Noli de Castro, this early, says he supports a grant of pardon to Estrada to pave the way for “reconciliation.”

Their supporters in the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), in a statement, said the verdict should be regarded as a “call for repentance and a call for change.”

According to the bishops, “The one who will profit from the good fruit of such decision or judgment is no less than the country itself which is known to have been suffering from all kinds of graft and corruption and plunder,” the statement said.

A high-profile CBCP member and Manila Archbishop Gaudencio Cardinal Rosales, for his part, warned Estrada’s supporters not to try to “settle the score in the streets or elsewhere.”

The verdict hardly surprised the Estrada camp.

Members of Estrada’s defense team — Rene Saguisag, Estelito Mendoza and Jose Flamiano — with Makati City Mayor Jejomar Binay, after having freshly read parts of the decision, questioned legal points in it.

Saguisag earlier doubted the Sandiganbayan’s capability of acquitting Estrada because he said the Supreme Court has decided on Estrada’s guilt on Jan. 20, 2001, when the SC administered the oath of Vice President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to become President.

Saguisag said “a special court represents victor’s justice, the bias of the ruling class.”

“The Sandiganbayan had all the opportunity, all the time to restore the rule of law, and to restore the faith of our people to the judiciary. But they wasted it. They still succumbed to the pressure of Malacañang,” Sen. Jinggoy Estrada said.

JV Ejercito said his father’s case is not an ordinary trial, because it “was meant to convict him to legitimize the grab of power in 2001.”

Estrada will be brought back to Tanay, Rizal, by order of the Special Division, who cited Estrada’s former status as president of the Philippines, in consideration of his not being brought directly to Muntinlupa.

Saguisag made a manifestation that Estrada was willing to be imprisoned in Muntinlupa right out of Sandiganbayan, but the justices asserted its position.

The Special Division convicted Estrada by finding him guilty of two acts specified in the charge sheet. These are that Estrada, in a “series of acts,” first accepted bribes from the illegal numbers game “jueteng,” and that he ordered the Government Service Insurance System (GSIS) and the Social Security System (SSS) to buy shares of stock from Belle Corporation, where Estrada received commissions.

However, the charges of getting a share of P130 million in the tobacco excise tax and acquiring ill-gotten wealth and keeping it in a “Jose Velarde” account were dismissed.

The court used the testimony of then Ilocos Sur Governor Luis “Chavit” Singson, who in October, 2000, accused Estrada of being the “lord of all jueteng lords.”

However, it said that parts Singson’s testimony were only found credible “insofar as they are corroborated by independent and competent evidence.”

It also acknowledged that Singson “did not have the purest motives in exposing the jueteng collections.”

The court said that the jueteng collections were “methodically detailed” in two sets of ledgers, that the defense have called hearsay evidence.

The court said that there are circumstances that lent credibility to these ledgers, one being that it was Yolanda Ricaforte, who was “closely associated” to Estrada, who gave Singson the first set of ledgers, and that the second set was presented by Ricaforte herself to the Senate during the failed impeachment proceedings that started in November, 2000.