MANILA, Philippines >> A popular Filipino senator and action movie star surrendered Friday after an anti-graft court ordered his arrest on large-scale corruption charges in a rare spectacle of the country’s political elite being made to answer for alleged crimes.
Sen. Ramon Revilla Jr., a member of a powerful political clan and one of the country’s most famous movie and TV celebrities, arrived in a convoy of SUVs with his wife, children and fans at the Sandiganbayan anti-graft court in the capital. He was then brought to police headquarters, where his fingerprints and mug shots were taken before his detention. TV networks beamed his surrender live nationwide.
Philippine President Benigno Aquino III came to office in 2010 pledging to break from corruption in the nation’s past, but few top officials have been prosecuted, leading to criticism that Aquino, himself a scion of a political dynasty, was soft on allies who faced graft allegations.
Revilla was one of three influential senators indicted early this month for allegedly receiving huge kickbacks from state anti-poverty and development funds. He says he is innocent.
“Even in my dreams I didn’t see this coming,” Revilla said at his mansion in Cavite province, south of Manila, where his fans and relatives gathered to show support before his trip to the court. “It’s like a nightmare I can’t wake up from.”
Revilla’s lawyer, Joel Bodegon said he filed a petition for bail and requested a hearing next week. Plunder carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment and is not bailable unless the judge deems the evidence weak.
The government ombudsman, who prosecutes state officials and employees accused of wrongdoing, filed the plunder charges a year after the scam to divert money from the Priority Development Assistance Fund assigned to legislators was exposed.
Revilla was accused of receiving 224 million pesos ($5.1 million) in kickbacks. “The evidence against him is weak,” Bodegon said. “He never received any kickback, not a single cent, and he did not get anything from the scam.”
The anti-graft court has not yet issued arrest warrants for the other two senators, Juan Ponce Enrile and Jinggoy Estrada. About half a dozen people, including senatorial aides and the businesswoman who is at the center of the scam, Janet Napoles, also were charged with plunder.
Enrile allegedly received 172 million pesos ($3.94 million) and Estrada 183 million pesos ($4.2 million) in kickbacks. The ombudsman also charged the three senators and two dozen others with violating the anti-graft law.
The division of the court in charge of Revilla’s case rejected motions by his lawyer to dismiss the charges, saying it had “sufficient grounds” to issue the arrest warrant against the senator. Similar motions are pending for Enrile and Estrada.
Corruption has plagued this poor Southeast Asian nation of 97 million for decades, fostered by a culture of impunity by powerful politicians, businessmen and their allies, weak law enforcement and a notoriously slow justice system.
Since Aquino was elected on a reformist pledge, his predecessor has been detained on vote-rigging charges and the Supreme Court chief justice impeached for the first time for not disclosing $2.4 million in his bank accounts.
Enrile is one of the country’s oldest and most powerful politicians. The 90-year-old wealthy businessman and former Senate president, he was defense minister when dictator Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law in the Philippines in 1972 and later was implicated in several coup attempts against Aquino’s mother, the late President Corazon Aquino.
Estrada is the son of a president deposed by a nonviolent uprising in 2001 for plunder. Joseph Estrada was later convicted and pardoned.
“The issuance of the arrest order for Senator Revilla and others involved in the plunder case as a result of the alleged wrongful use of state funds is an important step in the quest for justice,” presidential spokesman Herminio Coloma said.
Associated Press writers Jim Gomez and Teresa Cerojano contributed to this report.