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Philippine court OKs plea bargain with general

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MANILA, Philippines >> A Philippine anti-graft court approved on Monday a much-criticized plea bargain deal between prosecutors and a former senior general accused of plunder.

The court said the evidence of plunder was weak and former Maj. Gen. Carlos Garcia had complied with all preconditions for the deal, including returning assets worth 135 million pesos ($3.1 million).

Garcia has pleaded guilty to the lesser charges of direct bribery and facilitating money laundering. He was released on bail in December pending sentencing on the lesser charges.

Plunder, or large-scale graft, is punishable by 40 years in prison, while bribery has a maximum term of 10 years.

Garcia has been accused of amassing 303 million pesos ($7 million) while serving as armed forces comptroller.

Allegations of Garcia’s illicit assets emerged in 2003 after U.S. Customs informed the Philippines that his sons had been caught trying to enter the United States with $100,000 in undeclared funds.

Corruption is an explosive issue in the 120,000-strong military and has sparked several rebellions by disgruntled troops. Soldiers have been struggling with a dearth of weapons and equipment while dealing with communist and Muslim insurgencies and terror threats.

The plea bargain deal, negotiated by prosecutors headed by then Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez, has been criticized by many people, including President Benigno Aquino III, for violating public interest.

Gutierrez, who was accused of protecting former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and her family from prosecution for alleged corruption, resigned in April, a month after being impeached by Congress.

Justice Secretary Leila De Lima said she was disappointed by the court’s decision Monday.

“We will file a motion for reconsideration,” Solicitor General Joel Cadiz said. “If our motion for reconsideration is denied, we will go definitely to the Supreme Court.”

Cadiz, whose office is normally not involved in trials before the anti-graft court, filed a motion in January for the court to void the deal and for his office to be allowed to intervene in the case. He said then that the plea deal ignored strong evidence against Garcia and was made without notifying the offended party — the military.

The court denied that motion Monday, saying the government was aptly represented by the Office of the Ombudsman.

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