Celebrity senator is given a not guilty plea in high profile corruption case in Philippines

By , on June 26, 2014

Sen. Ramon 'Bong' Revilla Jr. with wife Lani Mercado face the public on the night before he surrenders to PNP. Screenshot of Solar News footage.
Sen. Ramon ‘Bong’ Revilla Jr. with wife Lani Mercado face the public on the night before he surrenders to PNP. Screenshot of Solar News footage.

MANILA, Philippines—One of three Philippine senators accused of plunder refused to enter a plea Thursday during arraignment by the anti-graft court in the biggest corruption trial in the country in more than a decade.

The court instead entered a not guilty plea for Senator Ramon Revilla Jr., an action movie star accused of receiving 224 million pesos ($5.1 million) in kickbacks from a scam that allegedly diverted millions of dollars from anti-poverty and development funds allotted to lawmakers’ pet projects.

The high-profile prosecutions bolster President Benigno Aquino III’s campaign to fight the corruption that has plagued the nation of 97 million for decades. The problem has festered amid a culture of impunity among powerful politicians and their allies, weak law enforcement and a notoriously slow justice system. But it remains to be seen whether the arrests will lead to convictions, which have been rare in major cases.

Revilla has denied taking kickbacks or stealing money from state funds, but his lawyer Joel Bodegon said he advised the senator not to enter a plea so that several pending motions they filed with the Supreme Court and the anti-graft court questioning the validity of the charges will not be dismissed.

Two other prominent senators are accused in the case—Juan Ponce Enrile and Jinggoy Estrada. They have not been arraigned yet.

Estrada, son of an ex-president and now Manila Mayor Joseph Estrada, joined Revilla in detention at the national police headquarters on Monday, surrendering to police following a court order for his arrest. He is accused of pocketing 183 million pesos ($4.2 million) in kickbacks.

Estrada and his father were accused also of plunder 2001. He was acquitted in 2007, but his father was convicted although he received a presidential pardon soon after.

Enrile has been charged with plunder for allegedly receiving 172 million pesos ($3.94 million) in kickbacks, but an arrest warrant has not been issued yet for the 90-year-old former senate president. The wealthy businessman was defence minister when dictator Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law in the Philippines in 1972. He was implicated in several coup attempts against Aquino’s mother, the late President Corazon Aquino.

Bodegon said his clients feels the “cases are politically motivated in the sense that he had announced already that he will be running for president in 2016 and that these cases are meant to derail his ability to launch that candidacy.”

A bail hearing will be held next week for Revilla.

Bodegon said the anti-graft court rejected a prosecution bid to amend the charges to accuse Revilla of being the mastermind of a scam to divert funds from the anti-poverty projects.

Associated Press writers Jim Gomez and Teresa Cerojano contributed to this report.