Deposed President Joseph Estrada was convicted and sentenced to life in prison Wednesday after a landmark six-year trial on charges that he took bribes and kickbacks in office.
Estrada, a former action film star who once pulled off the biggest election victory in Philippine history, was ousted in January 2001 by the country’s second nonviolent “people power” revolt.
Estrada was convicted of plunder — a capital offense — though the death penalty was recently abolished. He was acquitted of perjury related to allegations he falsely declared his assets.
Estrada’s son Sen. Jinggoy Estrada and lawyer Eduardo Serapio were co-defendants in the case but were acquitted of plunder charges.
Estrada called the verdict “a political decision” by “a kangaroo court.” He was also ordered to forfeit a mansion and more than $15.5 million.
“This is the last chance for the state to show that we can do it, that we can charge, prosecute and convict a public official regardless of his stature,” special prosecutor Dennis Villa-Ignacio said. “It shows that our judicial system really works.”
Riot police and troops kept hundreds of flag-waving Estrada backers several blocks from the Sandiganbayan, the anti-graft court in Manila that Estrada inaugurated before he was ousted.
Security also was very tight around the presidential palace as President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo worried about a repeat of violent protests that followed Estrada’s arrest in April 2001.
Arroyo spokesman Ignacio Bunye appealed for calm.
“We hope and pray that the rule of law will prevail,” Bunye said. “Meantime, we have a country to run, an economy to grow and a peace to win. We hope that this sad episode in our history will not permanently distract us from this goal.”
Estrada, who has continued to wear a wristband with the presidential seal in public — said before the verdict that he would appeal a conviction but did not immediately tell the court he would do so.
“This is the only forum where I could tell the Filipino people my innocence,” a disappointed Estrada told reporters. “That’s why I took a gamble. I thought the rule of law will prevail over here. This is really a kangaroo court. This is a political decision.”
Rene Saguisag, one of Estrada’s attorneys, added: “In its heart of hearts, it was a case of guilt not proven.”
Estrada was accused of illegally amassing about $81 million in bribes and proceeds from illegal gambling, and falsely declaring his assets. The trial ran from October 2001 to June 15.
Estrada has denied the charges and accused Arroyo of masterminding his removal in a conspiracy with leaders of the Roman Catholic Church and senior military officers.
Speaking to The Associated Press just hours before he heard his fate, the 70-year-old Estrada said he was ready for the latest act in his presidency, which he often has called the “last and best performance of my life.”
Estrada praised his political power base, the urban poor who reveled in his film roles as underdog heroes.
“I would have been nobody without the masses,” he said. “They were there in the past, during my stardom and my presidency, my trial and up to now, even when I was already detained.”
Estrada, who earlier rejected any suggestions of a pardon by Arroyo, said he feels he has been acquitted by the populace with the victories of candidates he backed in mid-term elections earlier this year.
With credit for time served in detention, it was unclear when Estrada might be eligible for parole.