MANILA, Philippines – The Senate acting as an impeachment court has decided to give Chief Justice Renato Corona until Friday to return to the witness stand and his defense team to present his defense before the tribunal renders a verdict next week.
“This court will give you until Friday to close your evidence. After that, we will consider the case submitted on the record,” Senate President and Juan Ponce-Enrile said when the trial resumed on Wednesday.
“On Monday, we schedule an oral argument. It will depend upon the court whether after the oral argument, we render judgment or postpone it for another day,” he added.
Enrile made the ruling after Corona’s lead counsel , former Supreme Court Serafin Cuevas, informed the Senate that his client could not return to the witness stand because of his present “mental and physical condition.”
Cuevas said he and other defense lawyers were unable to talk to Corona because they were prevented by his doctors to have a conference with him but they were able to talk to the Chief Justice’s wife and their children.
“I got the assurance that Chief Justice Corona is willing to be back…but the stumbling block is his mental and physical condition,” he said.
Cuevas said they were really convinced that Corona was not really fit to testify.
“In fact, he can’t stand up,” he said.
Corona appeared in the trial Tuesday for the first time but after giving his opening statement, he excused himself from the hearing without getting the approval of the Senate.
When he returned after more than an hour, Corona was already on the wheelchair and Cuevas informed the impeachment court that he was suffering from hypoglycemia (low-blood sugar).
Corona is now at the Intensive Care Unit of the Medical City hospital in Pasig City for possible heart attack.
And contrary to his earlier statement that he would strike out from the record Corona’s statement if he fails to return this Wednesday, Enrile said the Senate will consider the statement as part of the record.
“We will consider the testimony of the statement of the Chief Justice [Tuesday] as a part of his testimony and we will consider the case submitted on the basis n of the evidence presented in this court,” he said.
Enrile then directed both the defense and prosecution teams to prepare for the oral argument on Monday before they decide on the same day or Tuesday at the very latest.
“We will render a decision thereafter or at the very latest on Tuesday . So ordered,” said the Senate leader.
Chief prosecutor and Iloilo Representative Nile Tupas Jr said the prosecution team will no longer cross -examine Corona if he will only return to the Senate for the purpose alone.
Tupas first inquired if the defense team would still conduct direct examination of Corona should he decided to return to the witness stand.
Responding to Tupas’ query, Cuevas said, “We will continue with our direct examination and after we are through, then he will be ready for cross- examination.”
“The reason we asked that your honor is that because if the Chief Justice is coming back only for cross examination, then the prosecution is willing to waive our right to cross-examine,” said Tupas.
“Very good,” said Enrile but Cuevas said, “Well, I have to finish my direct.”
Corona was impeached by the House of Representatives in December, sending him for trial in the Senate, which began hearings in January.
The proceedings have gripped the nation for four months, with millions watching the drama live on TV.
Prosecutors alleged Corona lacked integrity, failed to declare his assets properly, and blocked former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s prosecution. They said his actions amounted to “culpable violation” of the constitution and betrayal of public trust.
A guilty verdict on any of the three charges would lead to his removal from office. There is no appeal process and the government would then be able to pursue criminal charges against him over the alleged hidden wealth.
The chief justice’s lawyers had said he did not need to take the stand, but changed their minds after Ombudsman Conchita Morales disclosed documents on Corona’s alleged bank accounts that prosecutors described as the “smoking gun”.
Though by no means the only target, President Benigno Aquino III has said driving Corona from office would be a crucial step in ridding the Philippines of corruption.
Aquino’s predecessor Arroyo, who ruled for nearly 10 years, was arrested last year and charged with vote-rigging.
Aquino’s allies have said she planted Corona in the Supreme Court just before leaving office in 2010 as a rearguard action to protect herself from future criminal prosecutions.
Hacienda Luisita case
For his part Corona sees his impeachment as a personal vendetta by Aquino following a landmark Supreme Court verdict that would break up Hacienda Luisita, a giant sugar estate owned by the president’s clan.
Shortly before the Aquino-controlled House of Representatives voted to impeach Corona last year, the Supreme Court ruled 4,300 hectares (10,600 acres), or most of the estate, must be subjected to land reform.
The 15-member court last month threw out an appeal by the clan to overturn the ruling and stop the farm being parcelled out to its workers, leaving the Aquino administration no option but to enforce the decision.