Chief Justice Corona to learn fate Tuesday

by Jason Gutierrez, Agence France-Presse

Posted at May 29 2012 12:45 AM | Updated as of May 29 2012 06:26 PM

MANILA, Philippines - The Philippines' top judge will learn his fate on Tuesday after prosecutors accused him of "deception of the highest order" and called for his sacking, as his historic 4-month trial reached a climax.

The first Philippine Supreme Court justice to stand trial, Renato Corona is accused of hiding millions of dollars' worth of assets and other graft, claims he says were cooked up by President Benigno Aquino to have him removed.

Prosecutors say Corona blocked graft-tainted ex-president Gloria Arroyo's prosecution and amassed $2.4 million in savings -- way above the limits of his salary and which he failed to declare as required by the constitution.

Chief prosecutor Niel Tupas called on the Senate, sitting as a special tribunal, to find the 63-year-old guilty and hand him the stiffest penalty possible -- a guilty verdict on any of the three charges will see him ousted.

It can also impose the lesser penalties of censure, reprimand, fine or a suspension.

"His lies in the SALN (statement of assets, liabilities and net worth) run into the hundreds of millions (of pesos) and cannot be ignored," Tupas said in his closing argument, after four months of at-times emotional scenes.

"It is lying, it is dishonesty, it is deception of the highest order."

Corona had declared a net worth of P22.9 million (about $533,000) from 2002 to 2010.

The trial has been closely watched because it is seen as a major part of Aquino's determination to stamp out corruption in an impoverished country where graft is endemic. Fed up of it, the public largely supports his drive.

Aquino was elected to the presidency in 2010 on a platform to end corruption, which he claimed reached pervasive levels during his predecessor Gloria Arroyo's term.

Aquino accused Arroyo of illegally appointing Corona as chief justice just before she stepped down, allegedly to protect her from prosecution. Arroyo is now in detention while separately being tried for vote-rigging.

Amid accusations Aquino may have violated constitutional provisions in his zeal to remove Corona, the president is confident that the top judge will be removed from office, his spokeswoman Abigail Valte told reporters.

"The most important thing is his own admission," Valte said of Corona, who testified last week that he did not declare his deposits because of a law that guaranteed absolute bank secrecy.

Sixteen votes are required to unseat Corona. The 23 senators, only four of them members of Aquino's party, have been tight-lipped about how they intended to vote. Corona has been backed by his peers in the judiciary.

His lawyer Eduardo de los Angeles stressed that Corona did not commit any "high crime", as cited by the constitution, such as treason, bribery, or corruption, so he should not be removed.

Corona's failure to declare his dollar savings was covered under the country's bank-confidentiality laws, and at most was a minor breach of another law requiring officials to declare all their assets, de los Angeles added.

"Certainly a high government official should not be impeached nor removed from office for any minor breach of the law," the lawyer said.

Last week, an emotional Corona appeared as the final witness in his defence and accused Aquino of a conspiracy to oust him.

He claimed his impeachment was the result of a personal vendetta by Aquino following a landmark Supreme Court ruling last year to break up Hacienda Luisita, a giant sugar estate owned by the president's clan.