Riots feared as Estrada awaits plunder arrest
MANILA, Philippines -- The anticipated arrest of ousted president Joseph Estrada on a plunder charge has put riot police on alert to quell any violence in the capital, Manila.
Estrada sympathizers protested over an arrest warrant on graft and perjury charges issued Monday, converging in front of the Sandiganbayan anti-graft court.
It was here that Estrada submitted to thumbmarking and mug shots then posted bail.
Pro-Estrada rallyists again converged Tuesday afternoon at the Department of Justice in Manila.
Others vowed to hold an indefinite vigil in front of his residence in the San Juan district, where he was mayor for 17 years until the late president Ferdinand Marcos fled into exile during the 1986 People Power Revolt.
Estrada cannot post bail on the plunder charge and will be detained when the corresponding arrest warrant is issued, the country's top prosecutor said.
"House arrest is out of the question," Ombudsman Aniano Desierto added.
The charge of economic plunder, which involves amounts of at least P50 million ($1 million), carries the maximum penalty of death.
Estrada is accused of having illegally acquired some four billion pesos ($80 million) during his 31 months in office.
A senator in Estrada's political coalition, campaigning for a seat in the May 14 legislative elections, has said a "civil war" would erupt if Estrada were arrested.
But President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo dismissed the warning: "Malacanang (the presidential palace) is not bothered . . . There will be minimal effect on the economy. The effect on the economy would be worse if we were not to pursue justice."
National police chief General Leandro Mendoza said his forces were also monitoring anti-Estrada groups demanding he be jailed.
Sandiganbayan judges handling the plunder charge said they were still examining evidence to decide if Estrada had a case to answer.
Estrada lawyer Cleofe Verzola said that Desierto lacked solid proof to support the charges, explaining why Desierto withdrew five of eight criminal charges against Estrada on Tuesday.
Ombudsman Desierto says that the government chose to focus on the plunder charge and that "solid evidence" backs it up.
But "sentimentalism" may move the judges to postpone issuing the arrest warrant, he added, since Estrada celebrates his 64th birthday Thursday.
Verzola herself doubts any arrest order would be issued this week, saying Desierto "risks another embarrassment" after withdrawing five criminal charges against Estrada.
The defense will move to "throw back" the charges to the ombudsman's office on Monday, Verzola said.
Five charges dropped
Ombudsman Desierto stressed that the actual withdrawal of the cases is still "subject to approval" by the court. The dropped charges involve allegations Estrada took bribes from illegal gambling syndicates, pocketed millions of pesos in tobacco excise taxes, and received large commissions from the purchase by two state pension funds of shares in a property and gaming firm.
Desierto said the five charges they had withdrawn were already "subsumed" in the economic plunder case.
He added that focusing on the plunder case would preempt "delaying tactics" by Estrada's lawyers.
As well as the plunder case, prosecutors are also pursuing a perjury charge and another involving the use of an alias to maintain bank deposits.
Estrada, replaced by Arroyo, who was his vice-president and main rival, says the charges against him are fabricated.
He was ousted in January at the height of massive protests triggered by corruption allegations.
Estrada deplored the atmosphere at the anti-graft court when media pursued him as he posted bail and court officers took his fingerprints. "This was just a small thing but they wanted to humiliate me," he said in a radio interview.
Estrada urged his followers to remain calm. "I am leaving my fate in the hands of the Lord," he told them.
Asked what her wishes were for Estrada, who turns 64 on Thursday, Arroyo said: "I hope he will find peace in his heart."
No one has been convicted of plunder in the Philippines and no one has addressed the issue of whether a death sentence would be carried out.
No one has been executed since Arroyo took office. She has commuted several death sentences to jail terms but stressed Tuesday there is no moratorium on the death penalty.
Reuters contributed to this report.
Estrada to file new motion with anti-graft court
Philippine Office of the Press Secretary
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