Prayers and celebrations as President Estrada is impeached

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The Independent Online

Amid scenes of open jubilation among lawmakers, Joseph Estrada became the first President of the Philippines to be impeached yesterday, charged with accepting millions of dollars of bribes from an illegal gambling syndicate.

Amid scenes of open jubilation among lawmakers, Joseph Estrada became the first President of the Philippines to be impeached yesterday, charged with accepting millions of dollars of bribes from an illegal gambling syndicate.

"The impeachment rap is with the Senate," the speaker of the House of Representatives, Manuel Villar, announced. "It's now up to the Senate to start the trial. We have indicted the President." More than half of the Congressmen signed a petition supporting the move to impeachment, but supporters of Mr Estrada complained that the motion was unconstitutional because no vote was taken.

Opponents of the President prayed and lit candles near a Philippines flag before entering the chamber, and wore peach ribbons indicating their struggle to impeach Mr Estrada. The President's ally, Congressman Constantino Jaraula, said: "The house was transformed into a market place, with the galleries shouting, clapping and singing. It is most unfortunate that Speaker Villar acted in desperation and tolerated mob rule."

Public transport is expected to halt in at least 42 cities in the Philippines today, in a general strike in support of the movement to oust President Estrada, a former matinée idol elected two and a half years ago. Officials said troops would be placed at installations including oil depots and power stations to prevent any violence.

Mr Estrada said: "No amount of rallies can force me to step down. I appeal to you not to go through with it. We have a crisis. Let's join hands to pull out of this, for the sake of the nation."

Among the most serious charges faced by Mr Estrada are allegations that he accepted more than £60m in bribes from gambling syndicates from Luis Singson, a provincial governor and a former friend of the President. Mr Singson insists that he personally gave the President more than 400m pesos (£5.7m) in illegal gambling revenues and 130m pesos (£1.8m) in local tobacco taxes.

Last week, Mr Estrada acknowledged for the first time that a bribe of £2.8m had been offered, but insisted that he refused it. "This is the last time I will be serving the public, so would I do that?" he asked on Philippines radio yesterday. "I did not become President to rake up money." But according to Philippines law, public officials who "maliciously" fail to report or pursue punishment of crimes such as bribery risk up to six years' imprisonment.

The impeachment charges will now be heard in the Senate where Mr Estrada's government - for the time being at least - appears to have a shaky majority. The Senate voted yesterday to replace its leader, Franklin Drilon, who defected from Mr Estrada's coalition, with Senator Aquilino Pimentel, who is viewed as being independent of both sides.

Senator Pimentel said yesterday: "The charges against the President are just that for the moment - charges that are meant to be proven and established within the impeachment process."

After a series of massive anti-Estrada demonstrations, one million Filipinos rallied in Manila on Sunday for a "prayer meeting" in support of the embattled President. The scandal has driven down the Philippines peso to its lowest level against other currencies and Manila's main share index fell 33 points, or 2.2 per cent.

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