Trial of top Philippine judge may impact economic reforms

MANILA (Reuters) - The Philippine Senate began the impeachment of the country's top judge on Monday in a case that could last months and distract President Benigno Aquino from a promised focus on lifting the economy and rooting out corruption.
Supreme Court Chief Justice Renato Corona has vowed to fight to clear his name in a trial which has its roots in the bitter rivalry between Aquino and his predecessor, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who is under hospital arrest awaiting trial herself on charges of election fraud and corruption.
Corona, appointed by Arroyo, is charged with betraying public trust and violating the constitution. He is accused of bias in favour of Arroyo as she faced charges late last year and, among other things, of failing to disclose his assets and liabilities.
Ahead of the country's first impeachment trial of a Supreme Court judge, Corona struck a defiant tone.
"If you want me removed, kill me," he told the ABS-CBN television station.
Corona attended the first day of trial at a packed session hall of the upper house of Congress, where senator-judges denied a defence motion to stop the trial.
Lawyers for Corona, who sat at the gallery with his wife, pleaded not guilty to all charges, arguing he has not violated the law or the constitution.
Outside the Senate building, groups for and against Corona held noisy protest rallies. "Jail Gloria, Convict Corona!" read one banner.
Aquino said he believed the evidence against Corona was strong.
"My expectation is that the Senate will examine the charges and decide based on the evidence to be presented, and I believe the evidence is strong," Aquino told reporters at the opening of a handbag factory in his northern home province of Tarlac.
Sixteen votes from the 24-member Senate are needed to remove Corona from office, a decision that would permanently bar him from public office.
Aquino can already count on 14 votes against Corona.
Analysts say that a guilty verdict would be a boon for the president, whose popularity remains high more than a year since he took office, but who has struggled to draw in foreign investment and carry out major reforms.
"I doubt Aquino's reputation will be impacted much if Corona's impeachment trial does not end in a conviction," said Scott Harrison, managing director of security consultancy Pacific Strategies and Assessments.
"(But) if Corona is convicted, it will send a powerful message that Aquino is intent on weeding out corruption in government and that should resonate well with the public."
The downside for Aquino's government is that the trial could last as long as six months, focusing attention on the country's dysfunctional politics instead of plans for investment and growth.
The government plans to spend about 142 billion pesos this year, mostly on infrastructure projects, to lift growth after weak spending dampened overall economic output last year.
While Manila has slowly reduced its overall debt load via innovative schemes, it has yet to gain major victories in its pursuit of big tax evaders and in improving tax collection.
The government has lowered its debt load to around 52 percent of GDP in 2010, from more than 70 percent in 2004, earning an upgrade from Fitch Ratings to one notch below investment grade. Moody's last year raised its rating to align with Standard & Poor's at two rungs below.
In December, S&P revised its rating outlook for the Philippines to positive from stable.
(Additional reporting by Rosemarie Francisco; Editing by Ed Lane)

Article Source :  Yahoo!News

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