Hundreds of thousands of Philipinos rally for unity amid crisis

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The Independent Online

Hundreds of thousands of Philipinos joined a government-organized prayer rally Saturday to demonstrate support for President Joseph Estrada who is facing impeachment on corruption charges.

Hundreds of thousands of Philipinos joined a government-organized prayer rally Saturday to demonstrate support for President Joseph Estrada who is facing impeachment on corruption charges.

A helicopter circled overhead with a sign reading "Uphold the law," a reference to Estrada's insistence that the corruption allegations be resolved through an impeachment trial, not through street protests demanding his resignation.

Many in the predominantly low-income crowd were members of several large charismatic Christian groups which have supported Estrada since his election in 1998.

Although the administration said the rally was apolitical, it was widely viewed as an effort to show that the president continues to enjoy popular support and can attract larger crowds than the tens of thousands of protesters who demonstrated a week ago in Manila's business district for his resignation.

"The reason we are here is we want to show support for our president," said Pedro Hermanos, a village council member from Pasay City. "We do not believe all these charges against him."

In his prayer at the rally, Estrada said he was offering his embattled presidency to God.

"From this day on we are leaving to your graceful hands our lives, our fate and our future," he said.

Estrada has been accused by a provincial governor of having accepted more than $11m from illegal gambling operators and tobacco taxes. He has acknowledged having been offered a 200 million peso ($4m) bribe by the governor, but says he refused it.

Estrada acknowledged the money went into a bank account controlled by his brother-in-law, but said it was without his knowledge. He said he failed to report the bribery attempt because "a president has so much work to do. That is the duty of our national police."

Under Philippine law, public officials who "maliciously" fail to report a crime such as bribery are subject to up to six years' imprisonment.

Critics say Estrada should step down now without waiting for an impeachment trial to prevent more damage to the ailing economy from the political crisis.

But Estrada, in his weekly television program Saturday, accused the opposition groups of damaging the economy by inflaming political uncertainty.

The House of Representatives is scheduled to begin preparing articles of impeachment against Estrada on Monday.

The articles are virtually certain to be sent to the Senate for a trial since more than the required 73 House members have signed a resolution backing impeachment.

The Bankers' Association of the Philippines, which represents the country's commercial banks, placed full-page ads in newspapers Saturday urging a speedy and impartial impeachment process and suggested that Estrada resign.

"If in spite of the constitutional processes the economy will continue to suffer because of the protracted crisis, resignation, if freely chosen, is honorable and a heroic action," it said.

Ilocos Sur Gov. Luis Singson, Estrada's former gambling and drinking partner, testified in early October that the president had asked him to coordinate the collection of millions of dollars in payoffs from illegal gambling operators for the president.

On Friday, Estrada also denied new allegations by the former head of the Securities and Exchange Commission that he received a $20m kickback from the sale of the country's largest telephone company and pocketed more than $16m from a controversial stock sale.

The political crisis has had a devastating impact on Philippine financial markets, sending the peso to a record low of 51.95 pesos per dollar last week. Stocks are trading near two-year lows.

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