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Manila court strikes down Arroyo order

By Staff
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MANILA, Apr 20 (Reuters) The Philippine Supreme Court today opened President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo to renewed attacks by foes in Congress by striking down her order that had kept officials from inquiries as she faced a political crisis.

Arroyo, who last year survived the desertion of allies and an impeachment attempt, signed the order EO 464 in late September as both houses of Congress focused on allegations of vote-rigging and corruption against her.

The government said Arroyo's enemies were using hearings on the budget and other matters as a ''kangaroo court'' to rehash the accusations that the president has denied.

''We are likely to see more political noise with EO 464 revoked but not necessarily profound change,'' said Erin Prelypchan, of the Manila-based risk consultancy, Pacific Strategies&Assessments.

''The essential elements that keep Arroyo in power -- a political culture with no real accountability and lack of an attractive alternative to replace her as president -- are still there regardless of how many legislative hearings take place.'' Arroyo's order, issued after two Marine officers appeared at a Senate investigation of alleged fraud in the 2004 election, worsened already bad blood between her and the upper house, stalling the government's 2006 budget and an anti-terrorism law.

Next week, the Supreme Court is due to rule on another contentious Arroyo order -- the state of emergency she invoked for a week on Feb. 24, after the military said it foiled a coup plot by rogue troops, communists and some opposition politicians.

The president's spokesman, Ignacio Bunye, said the government accepted the court's ruling on EO 464.

''We hope, however, that it will not be taken by certain members of Congress as a licence to use their power to conduct inquiries as an avenue to harass public officials or to push a particular political agenda,'' Bunye said in a statement.

''BOW DOWN IN SHAME'' Arroyo's foes, who accuse her of seeking to emulate draconian powers used by late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, were jubilant.

''It's definitely positive news and an affirmation that what we have been saying and fighting for is right,'' said Francis Escudero, the minority leader in the lower house.

The Supreme Court declared EO 464 unconstitutional by a unanimous decision, with one of the 15 justices on leave, court spokesman Ismael Khan told a news conference.

''During question hour, executive officials are not mandated to appear,'' Khan said. ''But during an inquiry in aid of legislation, they are mandated to appear except when executive privilege is properly invoked by the president.'' Despite the political turmoil, investors have cheered efforts by Arroyo's government to improve revenue collection, narrow its budget deficit and cut debt of about 76 billion dollars.

Still, analysts say corruption and inefficiency continue to undermine the fiscal reforms, with the persistent allegations and combative atmosphere threatening to cause damaging delays.

Early this year, Arroyo allowed some members of her cabinet to testify in Congress, but only on questions about the budget.

The Supreme Court, sitting in summer session in the mountain city of Baguio, agreed with EO 464 on the principle of separation of the executive, legislative and judicial branches of state. It also upheld the government's right to protect information that could affect national interests if disclosed in public hearings.

But the justices frowned on the list of officials covered by Arroyo's order and the ban on them appearing in Congress.

Roilo Golez, a congressman and former national security adviser who quit Arroyo's party, said those who wrote, espoused and condoned EO 464 ''should bow down in shame and apologise''.

Reuters SHB GC1639

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