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Ousted Philippines president takes stand

/ Source: The Associated Press

Ousted President Joseph Estrada took the witness stand in his historic plunder trial Wednesday, capping five years of court proceedings he hopes will vindicate him after he was toppled by a 2001 "people power" revolt.

Estrada, 68, wearing a native Barong shirt, was sworn in shortly after arriving at the heavily guarded Sandiganbayan anti-graft court in a Manila suburb.

The court has refused Estrada's petition for live media coverage.

Prosecutors allege that Estrada committed plunder — a non-bailable offense punishable by lethal injection — by amassing about 4 billion pesos (about $77 million) in illegal gambling payoffs, tax kickbacks and commissions stashed in secret bank accounts under the alias "Jose Velarde."

He also faces a minor charge of perjury for allegedly underreporting his assets in 1999.

"We expect justice to be rendered fairly," said Dante Jimenez, an anti-crime activist who sat inside the jam-packed courtroom.

"If there is a perception that it's not, the danger is this might again divide the nation and cause trouble. The country will be watching."

Estrada was forced to step down amid massive anti-corruption protests in January 2001 that were partly led by then-Vice President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who completed the remainder of his six-year term, then won the 2004 election.

"There will be nothing extraordinary in my testimony because I only have to tell the truth," Estrada told The Associated Press by phone Tuesday. "I'm confident that history will vindicate me from these charges by a conspiracy of the elite, church leaders and thieving politicians."