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Manila's Estrada strikes defiant tone in court

Written by: Staff
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MANILA, Mar 22 (Reuters) Deposed Philippine president Joseph Estrada struck a defiant note in opening testimony at his plunder trial today, dismissing accusations he amassed 80 million dollars from state coffers and bribes while in power.

The film star turned politician took the stand for the first time in his five-year-old trial, which is highly politicised as President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo tries to heal divisions from the popular revolt that ousted him and propelled her to power.

''I was not able to defend myself and was convicted in the street,'' Estrada, known popularly by his nickname ''Erap'', told the packed courtroom in the Tagalog language.

If convicted, Estrada could be sentenced to death. But most analysts expect he would be sent to prison or given a pardon by Arroyo to cool the political temperature.

About 200 Estrada supporters, waving banners that read ''Erap not guilty'', were kept about 500 metres (yards) away from the court building by 1,000 police officers.

The supporters, wearing Estrada's trademark orange, held an overnight vigil and attended morning Mass at a nearby church.

Estrada, 68, who is kept under house arrest at his country villa east of Manila, was accompanied to court by his wife, Senator Luisa Ejercito, and three of his children.

''I just answered with the truth so it was easy,'' he said as he was whisked away after the hearing ended for the day. ''I'm eager to finish this case so the people will know the truth.'' Estrada is expected to take six to eight weeks to complete his testimony as the court meets only once a week. It could take another three months for the two sides to wrap up arguments.

State prosecutors opened the case in October 2001.

''MIDNIGHT CABINET'' Well known for sessions of his ''midnight cabinet'' of drinking and gambling buddies as president and for fathering children with several women, Estrada is one of the most colourful figures in the rambunctious world of Philippine politics.

He remains hugely popular among poor voters who swept him to power in 1998 and says his overthrow and trial were engineered by the country's elite.

''His only crime is philandering not plundering,'' Estrada's lawyer, Rene Saguisag, told Reuters.

The uprising that ousted Estrada in 2001 after 31 months in office was backed by generals, Catholic bishops and powerful families, paving the way for Arroyo to rise from vice-president.

Many of Estrada's supporters see Arroyo, who survived an impeachment attempt last year over allegations of graft and vote-rigging in the 2004 election, as an illegitimate leader.

State prosecutor Dennis Villa Ignacio said Estrada had not convinced anyone with his testimony.

''It's a general denial,'' he said. ''We expected that line of defence.'' Antonio Gatmaitan, a political analyst who was in the court, said Estrada ''performed pretty well'' despite what appeared to be inadequate preparations by his lawyers, who tried to adjourn the proceedings before midday.

''I was expecting clockwork,'' he said.

Luis ''Chavit'' Singson, a provincial governor who was the government's key witness, was also in court to hear his former friend and gambling buddy testify.

''We are 100 per cent sure he will lie,'' Singson told reporters. ''He is an actor, he can very well fake it.'' Singson has claimed he delivered 130 million pesos ( MANILA, Mar 22 (Reuters) Deposed Philippine president Joseph Estrada struck a defiant note in opening testimony at his plunder trial today, dismissing accusations he amassed 80 million dollars from state coffers and bribes while in power.

The film star turned politician took the stand for the first time in his five-year-old trial, which is highly politicised as President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo tries to heal divisions from the popular revolt that ousted him and propelled her to power.

''I was not able to defend myself and was convicted in the street,'' Estrada, known popularly by his nickname ''Erap'', told the packed courtroom in the Tagalog language.

If convicted, Estrada could be sentenced to death. But most analysts expect he would be sent to prison or given a pardon by Arroyo to cool the political temperature.

About 200 Estrada supporters, waving banners that read ''Erap not guilty'', were kept about 500 metres (yards) away from the court building by 1,000 police officers.

The supporters, wearing Estrada's trademark orange, held an overnight vigil and attended morning Mass at a nearby church.

Estrada, 68, who is kept under house arrest at his country villa east of Manila, was accompanied to court by his wife, Senator Luisa Ejercito, and three of his children.

''I just answered with the truth so it was easy,'' he said as he was whisked away after the hearing ended for the day. ''I'm eager to finish this case so the people will know the truth.'' Estrada is expected to take six to eight weeks to complete his testimony as the court meets only once a week. It could take another three months for the two sides to wrap up arguments.

State prosecutors opened the case in October 2001.

''MIDNIGHT CABINET'' Well known for sessions of his ''midnight cabinet'' of drinking and gambling buddies as president and for fathering children with several women, Estrada is one of the most colourful figures in the rambunctious world of Philippine politics.

He remains hugely popular among poor voters who swept him to power in 1998 and says his overthrow and trial were engineered by the country's elite.

''His only crime is philandering not plundering,'' Estrada's lawyer, Rene Saguisag, told Reuters.

The uprising that ousted Estrada in 2001 after 31 months in office was backed by generals, Catholic bishops and powerful families, paving the way for Arroyo to rise from vice-president.

Many of Estrada's supporters see Arroyo, who survived an impeachment attempt last year over allegations of graft and vote-rigging in the 2004 election, as an illegitimate leader.

State prosecutor Dennis Villa Ignacio said Estrada had not convinced anyone with his testimony.

''It's a general denial,'' he said. ''We expected that line of defence.'' Antonio Gatmaitan, a political analyst who was in the court, said Estrada ''performed pretty well'' despite what appeared to be inadequate preparations by his lawyers, who tried to adjourn the proceedings before midday.

''I was expecting clockwork,'' he said.

Luis ''Chavit'' Singson, a provincial governor who was the government's key witness, was also in court to hear his former friend and gambling buddy testify.

''We are 100 per cent sure he will lie,'' Singson told reporters. ''He is an actor, he can very well fake it.'' Singson has claimed he delivered 130 million pesos ($2.5 million) in tobacco taxes to Estrada's house and has accused him of links to illegal lottery syndicates.

REUTERS DKS BS1625 .5 million) in tobacco taxes to Estrada's house and has accused him of links to illegal lottery syndicates.

REUTERS DKS BS1625

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