-- In a surprise move that plunged the impeachment trial of Philippine President Joseph Estrada into chaos, senators today refused to examine bank records that allegedly indicate the president accumulated millions of dollars in illegal wealth while in office. The decision triggered street protests, caused prosecutors to resign and led opposition politicians to accuse the Senate of being "tainted with bias."
Prosecutors from the House of Representatives had sought to unseal bank records that they said would prove Estrada had amassed $63.5 million in undeclared income from bribes and kickbacks since he was elected in 1998. But by an 11 to 10 vote, the Senate refused to open the documents, with the majority arguing that the evidence was outside the scope of the impeachment proceedings.
Prosecutors said the decision, which caused some anti-Estrada senators to begin weeping and led to loud shouts of "Conscience! Conscience!" in the cramped Senate chamber, suggested that the president eventually would be acquitted. Opposition leaders have warned of even more political turmoil if that happens, including mass protests and civil disobedience that could bring the country to a standstill until Estrada resigned.
Estrada, who is facing U.S.-style impeachment proceedings, has been pummeled with accusations of corruption since the landmark trial began last month. Prosecutors have charged that he ran a criminal syndicate from the nation's highest office, and witnesses have testified that he kept multimillion-dollar bank accounts under false names, that he profited from insider stock trading and that he attempted to intervene in a murder case on behalf of a friend.
If he is convicted -- which would require a two-thirds majority in the 22-member Senate -- he would become the first democratically elected leader in Asia to be removed from office for corruption.
One prosecutor, Rep. Joker Arroyo, called the Senate's ruling "a shameless vote of acquittal." He accused the 11 senators who sided with Estrada's defense team of being "in the pocket of the president."
The chief prosecutor, Feliciano Belmonte, called the decision "devastating."
Estrada said in a statement read on his behalf: "Just like in any important trial . . . you win some, you lose some." He called on his countrymen to "pray for unity and guidance" and to avoid violence.
Within an hour of the ruling, several noisy protests broke out tonight in Manila, the Philippine capital. The country's top Roman Catholic leader, Cardinal Jaime Sin, who was a key figure in the 1986 "people power" revolt that toppled dictator Ferdinand Marcos, urged demonstrators to gather at a shrine on a Manila highway that was the scene of some of the most boisterous anti-Marcos protests.
"That which we are afraid of has happened," Sin said in a radio broadcast before the rally. "Truth has become a victim of immoral people."
Thousands gathered at the shrine, including former president Corazon Aquino, several senators and Vice President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who leads a broad opposition coalition that has urged Estrada to resign. Opposition leaders said they also were organizing nationwide demonstrations for Wednesday to protest the decision.
[Estrada appealed for calm Wednesday as demonstrations continued in Manila and at least three other Philippine cities, the Associated Press reported.
["I appeal to our countrymen to keep calm," Estrada said in a statement. "Let us pray that we may be spared further violence, injuries and death that have stricken our country in recent times."]
After the vote, Senate President Aquilino Pimentel Jr. and Senate Secretary Lutgardo Barbo angrily resigned in protest. They were soon followed by the entire team of House prosecutors.
"Prosecuting is a sham," said Rep. Sergio Apostol. "The impeachment court is tainted with bias."
It was unclear whether the trial would continue on Wednesday. Prosecutors had planned to wrap up their case on Friday, and the defense had pledged to finish by Feb. 12. Congressional officials said a new team of House prosecutors could be appointed, but they said it would be difficult to replace the private attorneys assisting the prosecution who also resigned today.
The president has been charged with corruption, bribery, betrayal of public trust and violating the constitution for allegedly accepting nearly $12 million in kickbacks from tobacco taxes and an illegal gambling racket.
The prosecutors argued that the bank records, if opened, would have shown that Estrada had assets worth $63.5 million, which he kept under four aliases, including Jose Velarde. On the opening day of the trial, prosecutors displayed a $2.8 million check used to buy a mansion for one of Estrada's mistresses. The check was signed with the name Jose Velarde, and the signature was remarkably similar to Estrada's, they said.
Under Philippine law, public officials must declare their financial holdings. Estrada, a former movie actor who earns $1,000 a month as president, declared in 1999 that his assets amounted to $700,000.
Rep. Arroyo urged the senators to open the disputed bank records "to demonstrate that we cannot have this president because he cannot even respect our banking laws."
But Estrada's lawyer, Estelito Mendoza, argued that the account was not specified in the impeachment complaint and the records were therefore inadmissible. That argument was echoed by senators who sided with the president.
"The articles of impeachment is not an open-ended charge sheet that can be expanded from day to day as new evidence is discovered," Sen. Teresita Aquino-Oreta said.
Special correspondent Carlos H. Conde in Manila contributed to this report.