Philippines Rewrites US Impeachment Script ; President Estrada's Trial, like President Clinton's in the US, Has Riveted an Entire Nation, but for Different Reasons

By Ilene R. Prusher writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, January 9, 2001 | Go to article overview

Philippines Rewrites US Impeachment Script ; President Estrada's Trial, like President Clinton's in the US, Has Riveted an Entire Nation, but for Different Reasons


Ilene R. Prusher writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Sen. Miriam Defensor Santiago storms across the courtroom, pointing at the viewers' gallery. The accused, she bellows, "went out of their way to stand out of their seats, deliberately violating the signs - which are very clearly pasted on our walls saying 'please remain seated' - just to look at me in a provocative way!"

Three spectators are ejected.

On trial in the Senate impeachment proceedings here is not just the presidency of Joseph Estrada, but the strength and sophistication of Philippine democracy itself. And while much of the procedural substance of the corruption trial is a page torn from US congressional impeachment powers - most recently exercised against President Bill Clinton - the style is wholly Filipino.

Three years after impeaching the president first began to be talked about in the US, senators here are using testimony on the Internet from Mr. Clinton's trial to help guide them through the process.

One of the most striking adaptations from the US rulebook is that each senator is given a chance to examine and cross-examine the witnesses, effectively giving each an opportunity to play prosecutor and defense lawyer as well as member of the jury.

And that, especially as the trial is being televised live across this nation of 75 million, has some officials regretting that they did not stick more closely to the American script.

"I was originally in favor of letting the chief justice ask the questions, because we're not all lawyers," says Sen. Anna Dominique Coseteng.

Yesterday senators decided to cede to Mrs. Santiago's demands for the names and addresses - and ultimately the eviction from the trial - of those whom she said had glared at her as she cross- examined a witness. The three people who were ejected, two women from wealthy political families and a man known as an anticrime crusader - said they had merely stood because they couldn't see Santiago around the columns.

"I think it would be better if the trial were not on TV, because certain people do things to get media attention, and it becomes one big put-on," adds Mrs. Coseteng.

The president of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines, Arthur D. Lim, "deeply deplored" the summary ejection of the three spectators as violation of due process, while a private prosecutor, Romeo Capulong of the Public Interest Law Center, said that proceedings had become "farcical."

Those are perhaps strong words for what thus far appears to be an earnest effort to give Estrada - accused of fraud, corruption, violation of the Constitution and of the public trust - a fair trial. But analysts say the trial is in part defined by a very Filipino tendency to bend the rules.

"Theoretically, since they had no rules at the start of the proceedings, they borrowed almost lock, stock, and barrel from the American proceedings," says Prof. Felipe Miranda, a political scientist and head of Pulse Asia, a polling organization. "The difference is really in the degree of flexibility with which they interpret the rules. There's a lack of legal finesse .... We are a kindlier society [than America] ... but when you bend the rules too often, you wonder if there are any."

Senators have two minutes to ask questions of witnesses or cross- examine them, but the limit is waived more as a rule than an exception. The no-nonsense chief justice has given the senators pointers on legal procedure to try to keep things on track. And the signs taped to the wide columns in the two viewing galleries, "No Standing - No Clapping - No Laughing," seemed to have gone overlooked until Santiago made an issue of them. …

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