Probe of Estrada to continue

- Efren Danao -
President Arroyo vowed to vigorously pursue a string of criminal cases against deposed President Joseph Estrada in connection with alleged massive graft and corruption and plunder.

This developed Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. presided at the turnover to private prosecutors of additional evidence against Estrada and other possible respondents pertaining to the alleged diversion of P100 million from the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office (PCSO) to the the Partnership for the Poor Foundation of former First Lady Luisa Ejercito.

"We are required to bring justice to those who violated the trust of the people," the President said in a speech before local businessmen.

"There can be no healing without cleansing. There can be no reconciliation without justice," Mrs. Arroyo stressed.

Justice Secretary Hernando Perez said the government was preparing fresh corruption cases against Estrada, after completing its investigations into six cases of bribery, embezzlement and cronyism involving as much as P15 billion. "We are going to file some more. It’s just a matter of timing."

Ombudsman Aniano Desierto said he would press investigations into other graft cases against the disgraced president despite a Supreme Court (SC) order restraining him from filing the complaints within 30 days.

"Nothing will stop. The investigation into the cases is not being restricted by the Supreme Court," Desierto said.

The High Tribunal is yet to resolve a petition filed by the 63-year-old former matinee idol, questioning the legality of the Arroyo administration, saying he remained the duly elected president, although on leave, and that Arroyo was merely serving in acting capacity.

Government lawyers asserted, however, that Estrada’s pleas were meant only to enable him to retain presidential immunity from criminal prosecution.

Estrada was due for indictment next week, and could have been immediately arrested since under Philippine laws, plunder is a capital offense, hence unbailable.

Desierto revealed that they have already finished investigations into the six initial corruption cases against Estrada, which were being stalled by the court order.

"Let us allow the Supreme Court to make a decision. We are confident that we are going to win the case," Perez said.

Prosecutors in the impeachment trial of Estrada did not have the chance to introduce the evidence on the PCSO anomalies as the trial was abruptly cut short by a popular uprising called people power II that started on Jan. 16.

Charges of misuse of at least 52 smuggled luxury vehicles, nepotism and illegal appointment of officials to multiple government positions were also being readied against Estrada.

The cases against Estrada will be pushed to the hilt, unlike the charges against the late strongman Ferdinand Marcos which have been gathering dust in the shelves for over 16 years, Belmonte said durng the turnover of the documents.

The private prosecutors - Chel Diokno, Alan Tan, Rainier Butalid, Rookie Garcia, Amado Valdez, Anton Peralta, Ulan Sarmiento and Dandin Tupaz - said they intend to "write the final chapter" in the impeachment of Estrada.

"It is important to conclude this particular business, to establish legally and without doubt, Mr. Estrada’s guilt, if we are to move on as a nation and not be paralyzed by the persistent division among our people created by this issue," said Quezon Rep. Wigberto Tañada, a key member of the prosecution panel.

Belmonte said the resolve of the private prosecutors to push to the hilt the criminal charges against Estrada will deter future leaders from abusing their powers and illegally enriching themselves.

"Future presidents should be forewarned that they are answerable for their violations," Belmonte stressed.

He cited the assistance of private lawyers in preparing the articles of impeachment against the fallen president.

"The public never knew the unrelenting, tremendous pressure that the prosecutors went through. In private practice, an unprepared lawyer can ask for a week or even a two-month postponement. In the impeachment trial, they gave us only two minutes," Belmonte recalled.

Both Perez and Desierto clarified that the SC order gagging the Ombudsman and preventing him from resolving the complaints filed by private complainants did not cover investigations of additional charges.

"It’s not about all the cases. We are prohibited to speak only in relation to the cases pending in the SC. There’s no prohibition either on the filing of the charges or investigating the cases," Perez told reporters.

Desierto also said the investigations were not affected by the order.

At the same time, Perez disclosed that former Social Security System (SSS) president and chairman Carlos Arellano and former Government Service Insurance System (GSIS) general manager and president Federico Pascual were set to testify on the new plunder cases to be lodged against Estrada.

Perez said the impending testimonies of Arellano and Pascual would prove that the fallen president committed "irregular stock transactions involving billions of pesos" in government pension funds.

He said the two new witnesses have signed their sworn affidavits and would become the government’s main witnesses, while known Estrada crony Mark Jimenez, who earlier volunteered to testify against the former president, would just be a "corroborative witness."

On the other hand, Belle Corp. executive William Ocier has yet to sign his statement.

Jimenez has alleged that Estrada made a killing on the Equitable and PCIBank merger, the buyout of the Philippine Long Distance Telephone Co. by Metro Pacific, as well as from the stock market scandal involving the Best World Resources and diversion of SSS and GSIS funds.

Meanwhile, Desierto said he would file a motion for reconsideration of the SC’s gag order against him.

"I will just correct the misimpression that we are irresponsible. I will explain to the SC that my statement was edited. We only made this investigation open to the public because this is of national interest," Desierto said.

He clarified that he made his investigations accessible to reporters because he believed that the issue was of national interest.

He argued that if the impeachment trial was opened to the public, why can’t his investigations be likewise transparent.
‘RP can’t have 2 presidents’
Legislators said yesterday the Philippines is no longer under foreign domination and therefore cannot have two presidents.

The lawmakers were reacting to another petition by Estrada’s lawyers asking the SC to declare him "president on leave" until 2004 while Mrs. Arroyo is governing the country.

"The Japanese occupation has long ended. The situation was extraordinary then when the nation had two presidents. We were in a state of war (then). This is hardly the situation now," Bohol Rep. Ernesto Herrera said.

Former Makati Rep. Joker Arroyo said Estrada is no longer president and is just a pretender.

"We have only one government, one Constitution and one president, namely, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, and a pretender, Joseph Ejercito Estrada," the lawmaker said.

Arroyo, now a senatorial candidate of the administration People Power Coalition, was a key member of the House prosecution panel in the impeachment trial. – With reports from Delon Porcalla, Jess Diaz, Sandy Araneta, Benjie Villa, Perseus Echeminada

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