MANILA (Reuters) - Joseph Estrada, outspoken former president of the Philippines and hero of countless movies against injustice and corruption, was remarkably restrained on Wednesday when he was sentenced to life imprisonment for plunder.
Estrada, impeccably dressed in a traditional pineapple fibre dress shirt and cream trousers, listened impassively, shaking his head a few times, as a three-judge bench pronounced him guilty at a courthouse he himself had inaugurated in 1999.
He was cleared of a separate charge of perjury.
Only portions of the two judgments were read out, so the proceedings were over in less than 15 minutes. It was the first time in the history of the Philippines that a president was convicted of a crime.
Estrada hugged his wife, Luisa, and daughter, Jackie, both of them in tears, and walked out of the overflowing courtroom, accompanied by other family members and well-wishers.
When reporters crowded around him, he showed a flash of his old pugnacious style, remarking: “I thought the role of justice would prevail here, but really, it’s a kangaroo court.”
He said he submitted to the court against the advice of friends and lawyers. “They already warned me, but this was the only forum I could use to tell the Filipino people I am innocent, that is why I took a gamble.”
But he showed no signs of emotion and his lawyer said Estrada had long been convinced he would be found guilty.
“He had really prepared himself,” Rene Saguisag said. “This is victors’ justice. It is ruling class justice.”
Estrada was ousted from office in an army-backed revolt in 2001 and his then vice president, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, took his job. Her government said supporters of Estrada could riot after a guilty verdict, but their reaction was low key and Arroyo seemed keen to put the events behind her.
“We have a country to run, an economy to grow and a peace to win,” she said in a statement. “We hope that this sad episode in our history will not permanently distract us from these goals.”
Demonstrators were held about 500 metres from the courthouse, but the few hundred pro-Estrada activists desultorily chanting slogans were outnumbered two-to-one by riot police.
The army was on standby and fire engines and police vans blocked the road leading to the courthouse.
By mid-morning, about two hours after the sentence was read out, scores of policemen had thrown their riot shields to the ground and had taken shelter from the sweltering heat under shop awnings and trees.
Many were sprawled on the ground drinking juice and eating snacks from roadside vendors.
The protesters had taken over a public road and set up a small stage festooned with posters reading: “We anticipate the freedom of President Erap”. Erap, a play on the word “pare”, or buddy in Filipino, is Estrada’s nickname.
“This is a sign that the Arroyo regime has no regard for the plight of the masses,” said one of the protesters, Ver Tustauuio. “Erap is the symbol of the dreams and aspirations of the Filipino masses.”
In 2001, just three months after he was ousted from office, thousands of Estrada supporters rioted outside the presidential palace. Four people were killed and hundreds injured.
But Tustauuio said: “We have a peaceful agenda. It is the police and the military who are pushing the people to fight.”