Judgment day for Philippines' chief justice

Philippine senators are set to vote Tuesday on whether to sack the nation's top judge after a historic trial over alleged corruption which saw him accused of hiding millions of dollars in assets.

The first Philippine Supreme Court chief justice to stand trial, Renato Corona is accused of blocking graft-tainted ex-president Gloria Arroyo's prosecution.

He is also accused of lacking integrity and amassing a fortune way above the limits of his salary -- including $2.4 million in US dollar accounts -- as required by the constitution.

If the 63-year-old is found guilty on any one of the three charges, he could be removed from his post, although the senate has said he could also be censured, fined or suspended.

President Benigno Aquino sees removing the chief justice as a crucial step to cleaning up the government.

The president was elected in 2010 on a platform to end corruption, which he claimed reached pervasive levels during his predecessor Arroyo's nearly 10-year rule.

Aquino is confident Corona will be ousted, presidential spokeswoman Abigail Valte said Monday, when prosecutors from the House of Representatives and Corona's lawyers made their closing arguments after a four-month trial.

"Based on the evidence and the admissions that have been given, it is a strong case," Valte said.

But even if Corona is acquitted and gets to keep his job, the president will abide by the ruling, she added.

Corona's lawyers said he reserved the right to bring the case to the Supreme Court if found guilty. Legal observers said if he was ordered to step down but refused pending an appeal, it could lead to a constitutional crisis.

Corona had declared a net worth in 2010 of 22.9 million pesos ($530,000).

His lawyers said he has not committed any crime that would be grounds for impeachment, such as treason, bribery, or corruption.

And they said his failure to declare his dollar savings was covered under the country's bank confidentiality laws, and was at most a minor breach of another law requiring officials to declare all their assets.

The impeachment trial has been closely watched because it is seen as a major part of Aquino's determination to stamp out corruption in an impoverished country where graft is endemic. Fed up of corruption, the public largely supports his drive.

Aquino has accused Arroyo of illegally appointing Corona as chief justice just before she stepped down, allegedly to protect her from prosecution. Arroyo is now in detention while separately being tried for vote-rigging.

Sixteen votes are required to unseat Corona. The 23 senators, only four of them members of Aquino's party, have been tight-lipped about how they intend to rule.

Last week, Corona appeared as the final witness in his defence and accused Aquino of a conspiracy to oust him.

He claimed his impeachment was the result of a personal vendetta by Aquino following a landmark Supreme Court ruling last year to break up Hacienda Luisita, a giant sugar estate owned by the president's clan.

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