MANILA – Facing a life prison term, deposed President Joseph Estrada decried his graft conviction Wednesday, calling it a politically motivated sham by "a kangaroo court."
The verdict to end the six-year trial was televised live but was nearly an anticlimax. Government fears that a conviction would spark Estrada's poor supporters to protest violently failed to materialize.
It was the latest step in the plunge from the pinnacle of power for Estrada, a popular action film star who scored the Philippines' biggest-ever election victory in 1998 and vowed during his inaugural address that his loved ones wouldn't benefit even one cent from his post. He even inaugurated the Sandiganbayan, the anti-graft court that convicted him.
"This is the only forum where I could tell the Filipino people my innocence," a disappointed Estrada, still wearing a wristband with the presidential seal, told reporters. "That's why I took a gamble. I thought the rule of law will prevail over here. This is really a kangaroo court. This is a political decision."
Estrada, ousted in January 2001 by the country's second "people power" revolt, was convicted of plunder and acquitted of perjury for allegedly falsely declaring his assets. He is expected to challenge the verdict.
With credit for time served in detention, it was unclear when he might be eligible for parole, or whether he will spend time in prison, be allowed to continue living under house arrest in his own villa or even be granted a pardon.
Estrada also was ordered to forfeit a mansion and more than $15.5 million, plus interest, that were deposited into two bank accounts.
"This is the last chance for the state to show that we can do it, that we can charge, prosecute and convict a public official regardless of his stature," special prosecutor Dennis Villa-Ignacio said. "It shows that our judicial system really works."
Riot police and troops kept hundreds of Estrada backers well away from the Sandiganbayan. Security also was tight around the presidential palace as President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo worried about a repeat of violent protests that followed Estrada's arrest in April 2001.
Arroyo spokesman Ignacio Bunye appealed for calm.
"We hope and pray that the rule of law will prevail," Bunye said. "Meantime, we have a country to run, an economy to grow and a peace to win. We hope that this sad episode in our history will not permanently distract us from this goal."
Two co-defendants — Estrada's son, Sen. Jinggoy Estrada, and lawyer Eduardo Serapio — were acquitted of all charges during the 10-minute court hearing.
"In his heart of hearts, it was a case of guilt not proven," said Rene Saguisag, one of Estrada's attorneys. Estrada's friends and family issued a statement calling the case a political vendetta by Arroyo.
Estrada's tale is a poignant one of power, friendship, betrayal and downfall more dramatic than any of his films. He rose to stardom in his early 20s, playing tough guys with a soft spot for the needy and weak, roles that endeared him to the Philippines' poor masses.
Estrada has often called his presidency the "last and best performance of my life." He has retained some of his popularity while trying to fend off accusations that he illegally amassed about $81 million through bribes and proceeds from illegal gambling, and falsely declared his assets.
The trial ran from October 2001 to June 15, with prosecutors claiming he hid assets and bought expensive mansions and vacation houses for his mistresses.
Estrada has denied the charges and accused Arroyo of masterminding his removal in a conspiracy with leaders of the Roman Catholic Church and senior military officers.
"Let the Estrada verdict serve as a stern warning against the current occupants of Malacanang who may end up with the same fate," the leftist group Bayan said in a statement. "The president and her close associates have been accused of systematic corruption on a far bigger scale than Estrada."