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Long list of witnesses for Estrada impeachment in Philippines


In this story:

Speeding up the trial

Trial characters

Impeachment rule

Political undercurrents



MANILA, Philippines (CNN) -- The impeachment trial of Philippine President Joseph Estrada promises to be like an hours-long daily drama series, with as many as 57 witnesses to be presented in broadcast proceedings starting on Thursday.

Estrada, appearing in public on the eve of his impeachment trial, said on Wednesday he would leave his fate in the hands of God and the senators who judge him.

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Authorities said they were on alert to deal with any violence arising from street protests when the impeachment trial begins in the Senate.

Estrada faces four charges involving corruption and bribery and will have to leave office if convicted on any one charge by a two-thirds majority of the 22-member Senate.

The 11-man prosecution panel and Estrada's three defense lawyers agreed on the roster of witnesses in a closed-door meeting Wednesday afternoon, with defense lawyer Estelito Mendoza saying that they would present half the number.

Coming out of the meeting, the trial's official spokesperson Antonio Navarette declined to disclose the identities of the witnesses.

Prosecutor Joker Arroyo explained that security concerns prevented them from doing so. "We refuse to reveal the names of the witnesses to protect them," he said.

The prosecuting panel may summon alleged presidential mistresses, who Congressman Mike Defensor had said number as many as eight.

Prosecutor Oscar Moreno said they were considering this after Chief Justice Hilario Davide, who sits as presiding officer in the impeachment trial, ruled against an inspection of mansions allegedly owned by the mistresses, until the main witness, Luis "Chavit" Singson, takes the witness stand.

Singson, a provincial governor and Estrada's alleged bagman, spurred masssive anti-Estrada protests and the impeachment trial after he accused the president last October of pocketing millions of pesos in collections from the illegal gambling game "jueteng," as well as millions more in tobacco excise taxes from Singson's bailiwick Ilocos Sur.

President Estrada has said he is willing to take the witness stand but added he would heed the advice of his lawyers.

Speeding up the trial

Many of the witnesses will be submitting depositions instead of taking the witness stand, said Navarette, thereby expediting the trial.

Quoting Davide, Navarette said that "the depositions will drastically reduce the number of witnesses and the number of hours for the trial."

Even so, the trial is expected to last "until mid-January," Navarette added.

Estrada had earlier said he himself wished the trial could be concluded before Christmas.

But Senate president Aquilino Pimentel Jr. had said that the trial may even wend on until February when the campaign period for next May's mid-term elections begins.

Senator Raul Roco had raised a scenario where half of the senators seeking re-election and congressmen in the prosecuting panel seeking higher office may leave vacancies.

However, Roco remained confident that any such hitches would merely be procedural and that the impeachment trial would go on.

Defense lawyers had earlier been negotiating for a "winner-take-all scheme," wherein the senator-judges will render a single verdict on all the four charges against Estrada.

However, prosecutors favored that a verdict be issued after each charge is tried, to save time. If Estrada is found guilty on one count, there would be no need to try the other allegations, prosecutors explained.

Trial characters

For Estrada to be impeached, 15 of 22 senators must convict him on any of the four charges of bribery, graft, betrayal of public trust, and culpable violation of the Constitution.

Eight of the senators are lawyers.

Ten witnesses, including three issuing depositions, will be presented in the bribery case involving the president's allegedly pocketing collections from illegal gambling. Congressman Sergio Apostol will prosecute the case.

In the graft case involving the alleged diversion of tobacco excise taxes to Estrada, as well as the suspected use of public funds to build mansions for the alleged presidential mistresses, 25 witnesses will be presented, with 10 issuing depositions. Congressman Joker Arroyo will handle the case.

Seven witnesses will be presented, including five issuing depositions, in the case of betrayal of public trust which recalls the stock trading controversy involving a gaming firm headed by an Estrada ally, Dante Tan. Congressman Raul Gonzales will prosecute the case.

As for the President Estrada's alleged violations of the Constitution, some 12 to 20 persons are expected to testify, with as many as 15 submitting depositions.

Congressman Wigberto Tanada will handle the last case which will take Estrada to task for appointments of high-ranking state officials to multiple positions and for alleged nepotism in awarding government contracts. About six to 10 witnesses each will be presented in the litigation of both charges.

Impeachment rule

Both the prosecuting and defense panels have agreed on a two-hour opening statement for each side when the impeachment trial begins on Thursday.

However, the rules of impeachment will have to be amended to accommodate a request by the prosecuting panel to allow five of their members to speak.

Under the rules of impeachment, only one representative can make the opening statement of each side.

Chief Justice Davide cited that proper procedure demands that the amendment be made by the 22 senators sitting as lawmakers, not as the impeachment trial's judges.

The senators are expected to deliberate on the amendment through Wednesday evening.

Navarette said that a "gentlemen's agreement" on the issue had been reached, so that the start of the trial would not be delayed.

The likely amendment will allow five members of the prosecution panel to make their opening statements within the allotted two hours.

Besides the four congressmen assigned to each case, congressman Feliciano Belmonte will also speak.

One witness may be accommodated Thursday, Navarette quoted Davide as saying, optimistic that prosecutors and defense lawyers may not use up their two hours on the opening statements.

As the trial proceeds, each senator is allowed only two minutes to ask questions of the witnesses.

Among the witnesses expected to appear on the first day of trial are former national police chief Roberto Lastimoso, who is accusing Estrada of coddling gambling lords; Estrada's supposed auditor Yolanda Ricaforte, who allegedly received gambling pay-offs in the president's behalf; and presidential assistant Anton Dy Prieto who allegedly benefitted from illegal gambling.

Political undercurrents

Meanwhile, speculations is rife about the perceived supporters of President Estrada. In a report by the Philippine Daily Inquirer on Wednesday, Vice President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who is Estrada's constitutional successor if he is impeached, accused Philippine National Police chief Panfilo Lacson of traveling to the United States to present himself to U.S. officials as an alternative to Estrada and herself.

Presidential spiritual adviser and influential El Shaddai leader Mike Velarde has also left for the U.S. with his wife who reportedly suffered a mild stroke last week.

Velarde will obviously be absent in a mass Manila archbishop Jaime Sin will celebrate on Thursday morning, ahead of the so-called Jericho March on the Senate.

Vice President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and former presidents Fidel Ramos and Corazon Aquino will join tens of tousands of anti-Estrada protesters expected to join the mass action which organizers described as a peaceful march of silence to be punctuated at intervals by the sound of the "tambuli" - an indigenous wind instrument made of carabao horn.

Meanwhile, the peso's value dipped a day ahead of the impeachment trial, closing at P50.05 against the U.S. dollar on Wednesday.

However, the stock market rose slightly by 12.06 points to 1,393.29, on a statement by Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan that interest rates would no longer be increased this year and might even be cut in 2001, due to a cooling U.S. economy.

Traders said potential investors in the Philippine stock market would remain at the sidelines, adopting a wait-and-see attitude until the impeachment trial is concluded.

Reuters contributed to this report.

ASIANOW


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