Philippine chief justice impeachment trial starts

Chief Justice Renato Corona is accused of corruption and trying to block the prosecution of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

Manila: The impeachment trial of the Philippine Supreme Court chief justice began on Monday after he was accused of corruption and trying to block the prosecution of former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile promised his chamber would hold an impartial and fair trial for Chief Justice Renato Corona, who was impeached by the House of Representatives last month on allegations that include a bias for Arroyo, who has been detained on vote-rigging charges.

The nationally televised trial, which was attended by Corona and his wife, is a divisive issue. More than 300 left-wing activists demanding Corona`s conviction rallied outside the Senate, a block away from dozens of Corona followers. Police anti-riot squads kept watch.

President Benigno Aquino III has accused Corona of trying to block Arroyo`s prosecution and his reforms, which are aimed at battling pervasive corruption and poverty.

A defiant Corona led a rally by hundreds of employees and judges at the Supreme Court before the trial, denying any wrongdoing and vowing to defend the high tribunal`s independence.

"I have not sinned against the President. I have not sinned against the people. I have not stolen from anyone," Corona told his cheering followers. He expressed confidence he would be acquitted.

The trial is the latest twist in a political drama pitting Aquino against Arroyo, his predecessor whom he blames for a decade of corruption scandals that eroded public trust in government and held back foreign investors.

Corona served as Arroyo`s chief of staff before she appointed him chief justice shortly before her stormy, nine-year rule ended in 2010. Corona has accused Aquino of acting like a dictator by manoeuvring to oust him and gain a rubber stamp Supreme Court.

Rep Niel Tupas Jr, who leads a congressional team of prosecutors against Corona, said the chief justice was impeached due to eight acts of alleged corruption and improperly issuing decisions that favoured Arroyo.

"We are not here to indict the Supreme Court as an institution," Tupas told the senators. "We are here because one man — Chief Justice Renato Corona — has bartered away for the pot of porridge the effectiveness, independence and honour of the Supreme Court."

A Philippine court ordered the 64-year-old Arroyo arrested on November 18 after she was charged with ordering the rigging of 2007 senatorial elections to favour her candidates. She has denied any wrongdoing and is detained in a government hospital while awaiting trial.

The Supreme Court lifted a travel ban on her in November and she tried to leave the country. Aquino`s justice secretary, however, defied the Supreme Court order and had airport authorities stop her from leaving.

The country`s largest group of lawyers has backed Corona, accusing Aquino`s allies of improperly rushing his impeachment. Aquino`s administration was endangering democracy by undermining the independence of the judiciary, said the Integrated Bar of the Philippines.

Bureau Report

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