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29 November 2023

Philippines chief justice faces impeachment trial


A historic impeachment trial of the Philippines' top judge will begin on Monday as President Benigno Aquino steps up his popular but sometimes controversial crusade to stamp out corruption.

Members of the 23-person Senate will sit as judges to determine whether Supreme Court Chief Justice Renato Corona should be removed from his post and become the highest-profile scalp yet in Aquino's relentless anti-graft drive.

"We are going through a process to stop a rogue magistrate from completely crushing the sacred institution of the Supreme Court," Aquino said in the lead-up to the trial, which could take months.

Aquino won a landslide election victory in 2010 largely on a platform to end the corruption which has plagued the Philippines for decades and which he says got worse under the decade-long reign of his predecessor, Gloria Arroyo.

Arroyo, 64, was arrested in November last year on charges of rigging the 2007 senatorial elections and is now awaiting trial in a military hospital where she is being treated for what she says is a rare spinal illness.

Aquino then marshalled his allies in Congress to impeach Corona, 63, last month largely over allegations that as top judge he had tried to protect Arroyo from prosecution, but also for alleged personal corruption.

Arroyo installed Corona, her former chief of staff, to the top judicial post shortly before she stepped down as president in 2010 in a move that Aquino said ignored a constitutional ban on "midnight appointments" by outgoing leaders.

Public opinion polls show Aquino enjoys overwhelming backing for his anti-graft efforts, though his critics and even some supporters say he has been employing unnecessarily bruising tactics.

Some have also accused him of overstepping constitutional boundaries while going after Corona, and said his attack on the chief justice had dangerously weakened the independence of the judiciary.

Corona has retained significant support among the legal community and hundreds of Manila court employees refused to work on Monday to show their solidarity with him.

Wearing mostly black they joined a mass attended by Corona at the Supreme Court compound, where they hoisted slogans that read: "We support judicial independence".

In an interview on ANC television Monday, a combative Corona rejected calls by critics to resign and spare the country from a divisive process.

"Only death," Corona said when asked what would force him to quit. "If they want to remove me from my post, they should kill me."

The Philippines has a turbulent recent history of dictatorship, revolutions and military coup attempts, and Corona's strong words reinforce concerns that the impeachment trial may be raising political tensions to a dangerous level.

However the military has so far stood behind Aquino, even though he has launched reforms to eradicate graft in the armed forces.

The constitution requires a two-thirds endorsement of the senators, or 16, for Corona to become the first Philippine chief justice ever to be sacked.

So far, only about eight have showed signs they will vote against Corona, and in a political culture where expediency often trumps values, no-one in the Philippines can predict with certainty the final outcome.

The varied backgrounds of some of the senator-judges also reflect the colourful side of Philippine politics.

Among them are ex-dictator Ferdinand Marcos' son, the strongman's former defence minister now aged 87, two former failed coup plotters, an ex-police chief once accused of murder, three former action movie stars and a comedian.

The trial is scheduled to start at 2:00 pm (0600 GMT).