Joseph Estrada was arraigned on a perjury charge Wednesday and tersely answered an anti-corruption judge’s questions, the latest episode in the downfall of the once-popular president.
With last-minute efforts failing to delay the embarrassment of his becoming the first Philippine leader--in or out of office--to be arraigned, Estrada stood up in the packed courtroom, forced to go through the motions of any criminal defendant.
“Mr. President, just for the record, how old are you?” the judge asked.
“I’m 64 years old, your honor,” said Estrada, wearing a traditional Philippine dress shirt--and a white wristband with the presidential seal. The attire amounted to a statement that Estrada still considers himself the legitimate head of state despite massive protests in January that forced him from office.
He was then asked if his surname had been changed from Ejercito, as he was born, to Estrada, which he used during a successful acting career that helped him capture the hearts of millions of Filipinos.
“I had it legalized when I ran for mayor,” Estrada said, referring to his first foray into politics as mayor of Manila’s San Juan district.
Then came the key question: How did he plead to the charge of perjury?
“Your honor, I will follow the advice of my lawyers,” Estrada said.
“You will not enter a plea?” asked Justice Francis Garchitorena.
Estrada nodded in acknowledgment, then returned to his seat. The court entered a plea of innocent on his behalf.
Estrada is accused of falsely declaring his assets in 1999. The court set an Aug. 2 pretrial hearing. He also is to be arraigned in two weeks for the capital offense of plunder for allegedly taking millions of dollars in kickbacks and payoffs during his 31 months in office.
Estrada was elected in 1998 on a pro-poor, anti-corruption platform with one of the largest margins in recent memory.
The half-hour proceeding was held under heavy security amid government fears that coup plotters might try to foment violent protests. On May 1, tens of thousands of Estrada backers attempted to storm the presidential palace, and six people died in the violence.
But only a handful of people waited outside the building of the Sandiganbayan, the country’s top anti-corruption court, as a light rain fell. Riot police earlier used their shields to push back a group of about 50 left-wing activists demanding that Estrada be punished.
Estrada was taken by motorcade from a military hospital, where he has been undergoing treatment for minor ailments, to the Sandiganbayan. He inaugurated the court’s imposing stone building in 1999 as the symbol of a tough campaign against corruption.