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Philippine lawmakers impeach anti-graft official

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MANILA, Philippines >> Philippine lawmakers overwhelmingly impeached on Tuesday the country’s chief corruption investigator, long accused of protecting the country’s former president from prosecution.

The move could clear the way for former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, as well as top generals and other officials, to face graft charges.

Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez has been accused of failing to investigate allegations against those in power in a nation long gripped by crushing poverty.

After a lengthy debate, 212 lawmakers from the powerful House of Representatives voted to impeach Gutierrez.

Ruling coalition allies of President Benigno Aquino III broke into applause and raised their fists as the votes were announced after the nationally televised session, which lasted into the early hours of Tuesday.

Arroyo, now a House member, led 46 lawmakers in voting against the impeachment. The former president, looking dejected, walked alone out of the flag-draped plenary hall, once the bedrock of her power.

Corruption, long entrenched in Philippine society, is a politically explosive issue that set off nonviolent “people power” revolts that ousted dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986 and popular leader Joseph Estrada 15 years later. It has also sparked several insurrections by disgruntled troops in the last quarter of a century.

After her impeachment in the lower House, Gutierrez will now be tried in the 23-member Senate, which will act as a court when it reopens in May following a monthlong break.

“If we take out the ombudsman, then the way is clear for an even fight to prosecute Arroyo,” said Risa Hontiveros, an Aquino ally who was among those who filed impeachment complaints against Gutierrez.

The 258-strong lower chamber, which consists mainly of local millionaires and scions of political dynasties, has long been considered a bastion of the country’s corrupt and chaotic politics.

Gutierrez, who was justice secretary during Arroyo’s presidency, was accused by several left-wing activists and complainants of betraying public trust when she allegedly mishandled cases and failed to go after Arroyo and other top officials.

Gutierrez denied the allegations, saying the impeachment complaints against her were pursued by a lawmaker who was being investigated by her office for alleged graft. Gutierrez said she had expected most congressmen to “discard partisan politics.”

“I was wrong, dark politics ruled the day,” Gutierrez said, adding she never shielded Arroyo from prosecution.

House member and boxing star Manny Pacquiao backed Gutierrez, saying he did not think there was clear evidence against her. Pacquiao has long been supported by Arroyo.

In one of several allegations, Arroyo, her husband and a former elections chief were accused of benefiting from huge kickbacks from a $330 million Philippine government deal with China’s ZTE Corp. to set up a nationwide broadband network. Arroyo canceled the deal in 2007, and all three strongly denied any wrongdoing. ZTE denied bribing any official.

Complainants also accused Gutierrez of failing to go after agricultural officials allegedly involved in a scam to divert millions of dollars in state fertilizer funds to finance the 2004 election campaign of Arroyo and her allies.

Aquino’s spokesman, Edwin Lacierda, hailed her impeachment.

“The House has put an end to the long era of impunity that tarnished our institutions and made a mockery of the bedrock principle of accountability,” he said.

Aquino, son of revered democracy icons, won a landslide victory in last May’s elections on a promise to battle pervasive graft and widespread poverty.

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