Sunday, September 16, 2007

From movie-star glamour to lonely life in detention

Asia-Pacific News
PROFILE: Estrada: From movie-star glamour to lonely life in detention
By John Grafilo
Sep 12, 2007

Manila - Ousted Philippine president Joseph Estrada waved and smiled to the media Wednesday as he was whisked out of a court building after being convicted of corruption and sentenced to life in prison.

The scene was different, however, inside one of the holding rooms for the Sandiganbayan anti-graft court when a grim-faced Estrada met with his tearful wife, daughter and other family members after the conviction.

'The whole family was crying,' said Congressman Rufus Rodriguez, a close ally of the 70-year-old former president. 'It felt like a wake inside.'

After spending most of his life in the limelight, having been a popular action-movie star before entering politics in the late 1960s, Estrada now faces a lonely life in jail, devoid of the glamour and glitter he has been so used to.

Despite being a high-school dropout and a self-confessed womanizer, gambler and drinker, Estrada was elected president in 1998 with the largest victory margin in the country's political history.

He credited his win to millions of impoverished Filipinos who idolized him for often portraying a poor underdog hero in his movies and for promising to lift them out of poverty.

Estrada's undiminished love affair with the Philippines' poor dates back to his early childhood when he would pilfer bread from his house in Manila's San Juan town and give it to his playmates in the slum area a few blocks away.

Born on April 19, 1937, Estrada is the eighth among 10 children from an upper middle-class family. Considered a black sheep by his relatives, he dropped out of school and pursued a career in films.

Throughout his awards-rich movie career, Estrada starred in films that were mostly about the struggle of the poor against the elite or the rise of an underdog.

Estrada's first foray into politics was in 1967 when he ran for mayor in his hometown of San Juan and lost, but he contested the results, and in 1969, the Supreme Court ruled he was the true winner in the race.

For the next 17 years, he held the post of mayor, winning re-elections and turning the town into a first-class municipality.

Estrada's political star shone brighter in 1987 when he ran and won a senatorial race, becoming one of only two opposition politicians who made it into the administration-dominated Senate.

Despite being derided for his 'carabao' English, or ungrammatical use of the language, Estrada continued his meteoric rise in politics when the man popularly known by the nickname 'Erap,' the Filipino word for friend spelled backward, was elected vice president in 1992.

In 1998, Estrada won election as president despite opposition from the influential Catholic Church, business groups and the country's political elite. He is the only elected Philippine president in recent times who was not accused of vote rigging.

During his presidency, which he called 'the greatest performance' of his life, Estrada did not hide his vices and was even known to hold 'midnight' meetings with advisers and friends, most of whom had shady backgrounds.

One of those friends, however, turned his back on Estrada and accused him of receiving millions of dollars in payoffs from illegal gambling operators and pocketing public funds.

The allegations led to Estrada's impeachment and later to his removal from office by a military-backed mass uprising in January 2001.

On Wednesday, the Sandiganbayan anti-graft court found Estrada guilty of plunder and sentenced him to life in prison for amassing about 4 billion pesos (87 million dollars) in illegal wealth.

With the conviction, Estrada is now barred from holding public office again.

Despite the verdict, the former president identified as among the most corrupt former leaders in the world insisted on his innocence.

'I am innocent of all the charges,' he said in a statement issued after the verdict. 'The prosecution miserably failed to prove its case. I am at peace with myself, notwithstanding the guilty verdict, because you my beloved countrymen have overwhelmingly acquitted me.'

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