Philippines’ top judge ousted in victory for Aquino

MANILA, (Reuters) – The Philippine Senate voted today to remove the country’s top judge for failing to disclose his wealth, a landmark victory for President Benigno Aquino as he pushes a campaign to root out endemic corruption in the Southeast Asian nation.

More than two-thirds of the 23 senators voted to oust Supreme Court Chief Justice Renato Corona, who becomes the first official in the country to be removed by an impeachment court. The decision bars him permanently from public office.

The ruling is likely to be welcomed by investors amid concern that the four-month-long trial was distracting the government from policy matters at a time when the Philippines is seeing a resurgence of interest in its long-underperforming economy.

“The effect is clear, it will be a boost to the anti-corruption campaign of the president, it will also be a big boost to his support base,” said Ramon Casiple, executive director of the Institute for Political and Electoral Reforms in Manila.

At least sixteen votes were needed to convict Corona on charges of failing to disclose his assets, liabilities and net worth. The prosecution accused Corona of hiding a portion of his Philippine peso and US dollar bank accounts valued at over $4 million.

He was also accused of showing favouritism towards former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo by ruling that she could leave the country last year despite a government ban on her overseas travel. His impeachment on the financial charges meant no verdict was required on his alleged bias towards Arroyo.

The impeachment of Corona, once Arroyo’s chief of staff, removes a potential obstacle to prosecuting the former president, who is in detention at an army hospital awaiting trial on electoral fraud and corruption charges.

Corona’s supporters say the case was a political vendetta by Aquino that weakens the country’s institutions. Corona says Aquino decided to pursue him because of his connections to Arroyo, and because of a Supreme Court ruling last year to break up a huge sugar estate owned by the president’s family.

Aquino has maintained broad public support for his anti-graft drive. He won a landslide election victory in 2010 on the back of pledges to end a culture of corruption that has long dogged the economy, and which he says flourished under Arroyo.

Former President Joseph Estrada also faced corruption charges in the same impeachment court, but the trial was stopped after the prosecution walked out of the hearings, later resulting in a popular revolt that ousted him in 2001.

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