Philippine senator arrested over huge corruption scam

A Philippine senator who rose to fame as an action movie hero was arrested on Friday, becoming the first politician detained over a massive corruption scandal allegedly involving dozens of lawmakers.

AFP| Last Updated: Jun 20, 2014, 15:21 PM IST

Manila: A Philippine senator who rose to fame as an action movie hero was arrested on Friday, becoming the first politician detained over a massive corruption scandal allegedly involving dozens of lawmakers.

Ramon "Bong" Revilla surrendered following an emotional saga that played out for weeks on national television and highlighted some of the most chaotic elements of the Philippines` helter-skelter brand of democracy.

"I will go to jail with my head held high, and I will come out with my head held high," Revilla, 47, told reporters shortly after attending a mass with his family, his final made-for-TV showpiece before giving himself up.

Revilla then travelled in a luxury sedan, speaking constantly to television news anchors on the phone, to an anti-graft court for his official surrender on a charge of plunder.

Revilla is one of three senators to have so far been indicted for their alleged roles in a scam in which lawmakers are accused of embezzling hundreds of millions of dollars allotted for development projects.

An enduring feature of the Philippines` tumultuous democracy has been brazen corruption by politicians, a major reason for deep poverty in the Southeast Asian nation of 100 million people.

But the magnitude and number of politicians involved in the so-called "pork barrel" scam has shocked even the most graft-weary Filipino, triggering a giant anti-corruption rally in Manila last year.

The Supreme Court also reacted by outlawing the "pork barrel" funding mechanism that was allegedly misused, in which lawmakers were given funds with little oversight to spend on development projects of their choice.President Benigno Aquino, elected in 2010 on an anti-graft platform, has sought to take advantage of the events by portraying the probes into politicians as an integral part of his quest to stamp out corruption.

"This is a milestone," Justice Secretary Leila de Lima told AFP.

"We`re accomplishing what some people said was a near impossible task: to have these big personalities who are perceived as untouchable finally prosecuted."

But Aquino`s critics have accused him of directing authorities` efforts on his opponents, even though key allies have also been implicated.

Revilla and the other two senators indicted are members of the opposition.

One of the others indicted is Juan Ponce Enrile, a 90-year-old politician famous for his cunning who was defence minister during Ferdinand Marcos`s martial law regime three decades ago.

The other is Jose "Jinggoy" Estrada, the son of former president Joseph Estrada who was toppled in a 2001 popular uprising triggered by his plundering of government coffers. Like every politician implicated in the scam, all three senators have protested their innocence.

De Lima said she expected arrest warrants for Estrada and Enrile to be issued next week.

They will be held at a special detention centre for high-profile detainees at national police headquarters.

The charges of plunder against the trio carry maximum penalties of life in jail.

But the cases will likely take years to complete, if they ever get to that stage.

Aquino is required by the constitution to step down in 2016 and the charges could be dropped under any new administration aligned to the now-opposition.

The case exploded last year when businesswoman Janet Napoles was accused of colluding with lawmakers to embezzle an estimated 10 billion pesos ($230 million) in "pork barrel" funds.

The scam only came to light when one of Napoles`s aides with a grudge against her gave details of the embezzling to the media.

Napoles initially denied any wrongdoing, then in a failed effort to turn state witness gave prosecutors a list implicating more than 100 lawmakers. She has also been charged with plunder.

Two of those on the list are now Aquino cabinet members, although they deny the charges and say Napoles is trying to spread false information to deflect blame from herself and the other key players.

Aquino had also succeeded in having corruption and vote-rigging charges filed against his predecessor, Gloria Arroyo. She has been detained, mostly in a military hospital, since 2012 while waiting for her trial to proceed.