MANILA, Sep 12 (Reuters) Former Philippine president Joseph Estrada was sentenced to life in prison today after an anti-graft court found him guilty of plunder.
Fears that a guilty verdict could trigger widespread street protests and possible riots in Manila seemed misplaced. Pro-Estrada activists staged scattered low-key demonstrations in the city of 12 million people but all were peaceful.
The 70-year-old movie star, ousted from power in an army-backed revolt in 2001, listened to the judgment impassively but showed a flash of spirit afterwards.
''I thought the role of justice would prevail here but really it's a kangaroo court,'' Estrada, wearing a traditional Filipino dress shirt and his trademark wristband, told reporters. ''This is a political decision.'' The verdict also barred the former president from ever holding public office again.
Estrada was not immediately jailed. The court allowed him to return to his villa, east of Manila, to remain under house arrest until further orders. He is to appeal against the verdict, and the case will also come up for automatic Supreme Court review.
Outside the courthouse, around 300 supporters waved banners and made anti-government speeches but remained peaceful.
The crowd was far smaller than the thousands predicted and riot police sent to guard against them snacked and chatted. Some sat down, their shields by their sides.
''We pity him but what can we do?'' asked a woman who was among the protesters.
Analysts and oppositions groups said the show of police force was an overreaction by a government fearful of a repeat of 2001, when pro-Estrada mobs tried to storm the presidential palace.
Investors were relieved that the verdict was out and the reaction muted.
''It seems like there was no violent reaction so far so that is why investors are taking advantage of the bargain prices in the market,'' said Astro del Castillo, director of the Association of Securities Analysts of the Philippines.
''This is one thorn off our back.'' The peso strengthened to 46.70 against the dollar from its close of 47.12 yesterday. It had fallen more than 1 per cent earlier in the week amid uncertainty over the judgment.
The stock exchange closed 1.21 percent up.
''It's victors' justice. It's ruling class justice. The special division (of the court) was programmed to convict. We never had a chance,'' said Estrada's lawyer, Rene Saguisag.
''While the other countries are moving forward and developing, we're not. Look at our justice system,'' Estrada told reporters.
Earl Parreno, a Manila-based political analyst, said Estrada's core supporters could yet whip up trouble when he is sent to prison.
''If Estrada will be handcuffed, brought to prison, wearing an orange suit and that is shown on national television, that will have a very big impact on the Filipino people emotionally,'' he said.
''It is the calm before the storm.'' Estrada was charged with plunder, made up of four counts of corruption, involving diversion of funds amounting to about 4 billion pesos (85 million dollar).
Lawyers said he was found guilty on two counts, of receiving payoffs from illegal gambling and taking commissions in the sale of shares to government pension funds. He was cleared of two charges of maintaining a bank account in a false name and of diverting tobacco taxes to his own use.
Estrada was also charged with perjury, related to an alleged misrepresentation of earned income, but was found not guilty.
His son Jinggoy, a senator, was found not guilty of plunder.
Estrada was impeached for corruption in 2000 and was ousted after the impeachment trial collapsed in the Senate.
One of the most colourful characters in the rambunctious world of Philippine politics, Estrada's term in office was marked by reports of policy decisions taken after late-night drinking bouts, millions of pesos won or lost in gambling sessions and innumerable tales of mistresses and their lavish lifestyles.
The reports horrified the middle class and the powerful Catholic Church, but Estrada's long career as a matinee idol playing Robin Hood-style heroes and his down-to-earth manner continue to endear him to poor voters.
''Erap (Estrada's nickname) is a symbol of the dreams and aspirations of the Filipino masses. We will continue to struggle for democracy and justice,'' said one supporter, Ver Tustauuio.
REUTERS CS SSC1335