Philippines rewrites US impeachment script

President Estrada's trial, like President Clinton's in the US, has riveted an entire nation, but for different reasons.

Sen. Miriam Defensor Santiago storms across the courtroom, pointing at the viewers' gallery. The accused, she bellows, "went out of their way to stand out of their seats, deliberately violating the signs - which are very clearly pasted on our walls saying 'please remain seated' - just to look at me in a provocative way!"

Three spectators are ejected.

On trial in the Senate impeachment proceedings here is not just the presidency of Joseph Estrada, but the strength and sophistication of Philippine democracy itself. And while much of the procedural substance of the corruption trial is a page torn from US congressional impeachment powers - most recently exercised against President Bill Clinton - the style is wholly Filipino.

Three years after impeaching the president first began to be talked about in the US, senators here are using testimony on the Internet from Mr. Clinton's trial to help guide them through the process.

One of the most striking adaptations from the US rulebook is that each senator is given a chance to examine and cross-examine the witnesses, effectively giving each an opportunity to play prosecutor and defense lawyer as well as member of the jury.

And that, especially as the trial is being televised live across this nation of 75 million, has some officials regretting that they did not stick more closely to the American script.

"I was originally in favor of letting the chief justice ask the questions, because we're not all lawyers," says Sen. Anna Dominique Coseteng.

Yesterday senators decided to cede to Mrs. Santiago's demands for the names and addresses - and ultimately the eviction from the trial - of those whom she said had glared at her as she cross-examined a witness. The three people who were ejected, two women from wealthy political families and a man known as an anticrime crusader - said they had merely stood because they couldn't see Santiago around the columns.

"I think it would be better if the trial were not on TV, because certain people do things to get media attention, and it becomes one big put-on," adds Mrs. Coseteng.

The president of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines, Arthur D. Lim, "deeply deplored" the summary ejection of the three spectators as violation of due process, while a private prosecutor, Romeo Capulong of the Public Interest Law Center, said that proceedings had become "farcical."

Those are perhaps strong words for what thus far appears to be an earnest effort to give Estrada - accused of fraud, corruption, violation of the Constitution and of the public trust - a fair trial. But analysts say the trial is in part defined by a very Filipino tendency to bend the rules.

"Theoretically, since they had no rules at the start of the proceedings, they borrowed almost lock, stock, and barrel from the American proceedings," says Prof. Felipe Miranda, a political scientist and head of Pulse Asia, a polling organization. "The difference is really in the degree of flexibility with which they interpret the rules. There's a lack of legal finesse .... We are a kindlier society [than America] ... but when you bend the rules too often, you wonder if there are any."

Senators have two minutes to ask questions of witnesses or cross-examine them, but the limit is waived more as a rule than an exception. The no-nonsense chief justice has given the senators pointers on legal procedure to try to keep things on track. And the signs taped to the wide columns in the two viewing galleries, "No Standing - No Clapping - No Laughing," seemed to have gone overlooked until Santiago made an issue of them.

"The lawyers, the prosecution, as well as the defense, sense that they're not speaking to the impeachment court, but to the larger public..., and so there's quite a bit of political posturing," adds Professor Miranda. "This is an election year, and you have senator-jurors who are interested in being reelected, and even many people among the prosecution and defense teams who might be interested in running" in 2004, he says.

While Clinton was on trial under allegations that he had perjured himself in denying involvement with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, Estrada's public seems nearly indifferent to his systematic infidelity. But the public is keen to hear more about accusations that he has made himself wildly rich from bribes, kickbacks, and embezzlement of public funds. With demands for more accountable leadership ringing out in other corners of Asia - such as in this weekend's election victory by an anticorruption party in Thailand - the trial is viewed as a sort of regional bellwether of needed political and economic reform. While polls showed that Clinton was believed to be a competent leader despite any indiscretions, many here question Estrada's very fitness to rule. Pulse Asia figures show Estrada's approval rate sliding, down to 38 percent from the 50 percent who said they approved of Estrada at the start of the trial. Some say that is due to the sheer impact of the stronger-than-expected evidence against the president. But his defense lawyers feel that the proceedings are allowing too many cooks in the kitchen. Only 22 of a possible 24 senators currently serve, and two-thirds of them are needed to convict Estrada.

"We modeled our Constitution after the US Constitution ... and that's oriented toward the jury system, which we don't have here," says Raul Daza, a defense lawyer for Estrada, suggesting that Filipinos are unaccustomed to the concept of jurors as passive observers who withhold judgment until the trial's end. Allowing senators to question witnesses? "We wish that didn't happen," he says. "It has only brought about delay."

For many senators, however, running an honest, by-the-books trial is of utmost importance. They point out that the most damaging piece of evidence so far - testimony by a bank executive who says she witnessed Estrada set up a bank account with a pseudonym and sign his name as "Jose Velarde" - is not a matter specifically mentioned in the articles of impeachment.

Senate majority leader Francisco Tatad, one of several fence-sitters, has a US-published "Impeachment Trial Diary" on his desk. He insists that he and other senators should vote according to whether the evidence shows Estrada has committed impeachable offenses, not simply whether or not they like him as a leader. "If that's what we want, it had better be a parliamentary system with a no-confidence motion," says Tatad. "If he gets convicted on weak evidence, then what happens in a month from now when we decide we don't like [his successor]?"

But others, such as Sen. Teofisto Guingona Jr., say that the "betrayal of the public trust" impeachment article, yet to come up in court, is broad enough to include almost any financial wrongdoing. Mr. Guingona thinks that when prosecutors start trotting out pictures of the president's mansions - an alleged 17 new homes in his 2-1/2 years in office - Estrada will inevitably lose support. "Anything beyond the income he declared is unexplained wealth," says Guingona.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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