Asia

Renato Corona trial: Filipinos gripped by judge's TV trial

Former Chief Justice Renato Corona at the Philippine Senate
Image caption Corona came back in a wheelchair after he was forced back to the Senate court

Screaming matches and a dramatic walkout, on top of claims of secret bank accounts, faked illness and favouritism - Filipinos have been gripped to their TV screens for months watching the drama unfold.

But this was not one of the telenovelas (soap operas) this country loves so much. It was the impeachment trial of the Philippines' top judge.

Since mid-January senators have turned their debating chamber into a law court to investigate the actions and assets of Chief Justice Renato Corona.

In the end they voted 20-3 against him, dismissing him from office for failing to declare more than $2m (£1.53m) in foreign bank accounts.

But that was only after some memorable scenes in court. Many of the senators are former movie and TV personalities or the children of ousted presidents (the sons of Ferdinand Marcos and Joseph Estrada are both senators). These flamboyant personalities are used to the limelight.

"This trial took some very strange twists and turns, as everyone was performing for the cameras," said Senator Miriam Santiago, one of the most flamboyant of them all.

At one stage she called a member of the prosecution "stupid", screamed 'Wah!" repeatedly in frustration, and announced she "felt like creeping back into bed and adopting a foetal position".

Then came Corona's own testimony. He gave a three-hour monologue that included a complex powerpoint presentation, broke down into tears, then got up and walked out of the chamber.

Less than an hour later, with the gates to the Senate locked to prevent him leaving the compound, he was back - this time in a wheelchair.

He complained of health problems, and he has been in hospital most of the time since.

Highly charged

Part of the reason this trial was so highly charged was because everyone involved knew that it went far deeper than just the guilt or innocence of one man.

It cut right to the heart of a festering disagreement between two branches of government - the executive and the judiciary - and an even larger divide between the current and former presidents.

Image caption The trial of the chief justice can be compared to a soap opera

Corona was appointed Supreme Court justice by the former president, Gloria Arroyo, in the last few weeks of her term.

The current government believes this was an unlawful "midnight" appointment, a tactic by Mrs Arroyo to put her ally in a position to help her when she left office.

When Benigno Aquino became president two years ago, he refused to be sworn in by Corona as an act of protest.

The row resurfaced late last year, when corruption charges were about to be laid against Gloria Arroyo, and she was trying to leave the country.

The Supreme Court, headed by Corona, said she could go. The government, backed by President Aquino, insisted she stay.

To make matters worse, the Supreme Court then voted to break up a large plantation owned by President Aquino's relatives and divide it between the tenant farmers.

When Corona was impeached, there was little doubt that the government was firmly on the side of the prosecution.

In fact, on the eve of the verdict, President Aquino admitted it would be a "disaster" if the chief justice were acquitted.

'Major victory'

So, in many ways, the outcome is a triumph for President Aquino.

"This is definitely a major victory for the president," said political analyst Marites Vitug. "He anchored his election campaign on being anti-corruption, and this is the biggest fish he's caught so far."

In other ways, though, it is not quite the verdict the government had wanted.

There were originally eight articles of impeachment, including accusations of favouritism towards Mrs Arroyo, but fairly early in the process, it became clear that the defence just did not have enough evidence on some of these articles so they were dropped.

"It's very hard to prove something like bias, especially as the Supreme Court is made up of many judges," said Clarita Carlos, a politics professor at the University of the Philippines.

So instead, the trial became dominated with accusations about finances. An undeclared $2.4m dollar bank account and an additional 80 million pesos ($1.8m) in other accounts ultimately proved to be Corona's undoing.

These are undoubtedly huge sums of money, and many questions could legitimately be asked about how Corona could have accumulated such wealth, but as Prof Carlos points out, the rules for nondisclosure of assets seem unclear, and other officials could well be moving their own finances around in light of the verdict.

"It's a partial victory for President Aquino, but in some ways I don't really think this trial was entirely fair," said Prof Carlos.

Senator Miriam Santiago, one of the three senators who voted against Mr Corona's conviction, went even further.

Image caption Senator Santiago said that the trial "took some very strange twists and turns"

"The verdict was not based on the rules of court, but on political considerations," she claimed.

But Ms Vitug insists that the outcome was both fair and a watershed moment in the notoriously corrupt world of Philippine politics.

"What is really compelling and makes this such a landmark case is that it sends such a really strong signal to other public officials that they need to be completely above board when it comes to their finances," she said

Fast pace

For many Filipinos, one major positive of the trial is that it's actually reached a timely conclusion. Court cases in the Philippines have a tendency to go on and on unresolved for years.

Whether they agree with the decision or not, it is still a decision and that is something to celebrate.

Now the workings of power can resume. President Aquino's supporters in his fight against corruption will refocus on the criminal trial of Gloria Arroyo, which should get under way in earnest soon.

The senators can dismantle their temporary courtroom and turn it back into a debating chamber and address a large backlog of bills.

Senator Santiago will soon take up her post as a judge at the International Criminal Court, no doubt bringing her unique theatrical style with her.

And ordinary Filipinos, well, they will just have to go back to watching telenovelas instead.

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