29th May, 2012
MANILA: The impeachment trial of the Philippines’ top judge was expected to wrap up on Monday, bringing down the curtain on a political drama driven by President Benigno Aquino’s anti-corruption campaign.
Supreme Court Chief Justice Renato Corona, 63, is accused of protecting graft-tainted former president Gloria Arroyo from prosecution, as well as lacking integrity and amassing a personal fortune above the limits of his salary—which he failed to declare as required by the constitution.
The maximum penalty for a guilty verdict on any of the three charges is his removal, but the Senate, sitting as a court, said it also has the option of imposing the lesser penalties of censure, reprimand, fine, or suspension.
In his closing argument Monday, chief prosecutor Niel Tupas said the senator-judges must convict and impose the severest penalty for Corona’s failure to declare bank deposits including $2.4 million in US dollar accounts.
“His lies in the SALN (his statement of assets, liabilities and net worth) run into the hundreds of millions and cannot be ignored,” Tupas said.
“It is lying, it is dishonesty, it is deception of the highest order.”
Tupas said these assets were significantly higher than the 22.9 million pesos (about $533,000) net worth declared by Corona in his 2010 declaration, an annual constitutional requirement for all public officials.
Corona’s removal was sought by Aquino, who was elected to the presidency in 2010 on a platform to end corruption which he claimed reached pervasive levels during Arroyo’s term.
Aquino has accused Arroyo of illegally appointing Corona as chief justice just before she stepped down, allegedly to protect her from prosecution. Arroyo is now in detention while separately being tried for vote rigging.
Corona was impeached by Aquino’s allies in the House of Representatives in December, which then sent the complaint to the Senate for trial.
Millions of Filipinos have closely followed the trial, which began in January, and various opinion surveys have indicated that Aquino enjoyed widespread public support for pursuing a judge perceived to be corrupt.
Corona however was backed by his peers in the judiciary amid warnings the president may have violated constitutional provisions in his zeal to remove the chief justice.
Sixteen votes, about two-thirds of the chamber, are required to unseat Corona. The senators, who include only four members of Aquino’s party, have been tight-lipped about how they intended to vote.
The senator-judges were expected to announce their vote in individual speeches later Monday or Tuesday.
Corona’s lawyer Eduardo de los Angeles stressed that Corona did not commit any “high crime” cited by the constitution, such as treason, bribery, or corruption, that would be cause for his removal.
Corona’s failure to declare his dollar savings was covered under the country’s strict bank confidentiality laws, his lawyer said.
At most, Corona’s failure to declare the dollar deposits was a minor breach of another law requiring public officials to declare all their assets, and this can be remedied by filing an amended statement of assets, de los Angeles added.
“Certainly a high government official should not be impeached nor removed from office for any minor breach of the law.”
Last week, Corona appeared as the final witness in his defence and delivered a three-hour testimony accusing Aquino of a conspiracy to oust him.
He claimed his impeachment was the result of a personal vendetta by Aquino following a landmark Supreme Court ruling to break up Hacienda Luisita, a giant sugar estate owned by the president’s clan.
That court decision came shortly before Aquino’s allies voted to impeach Corona.