MANILA, June 20, 2014 (AFP) – A Philippine senator and former movie star was arrested on Friday, becoming the first politician detained over a massive corruption scandal that has rocked the nation, with two of his colleagues set to follow.
Senator Ramon “Bong” Revilla, a former action hero who parlayed his fame into a political career, surrendered following an emotional saga played out for weeks on national television.
“I will go to jail with my head held high, and I will come out with my head held high,” Revilla, 47, told reporters shortly after attending a televised mass with his family.
He later arrived at the anti-graft court that ordered his arrest and was seen beaming to a crowd of journalists and supporters before entering the building to meet with the court sheriff.
Revilla is one of three senators who have so far been accused of participating in a years-long scam in which many politicians allegedly embezzled hundreds of millions of dollars that should have been spent on development projects.
An enduring feature of the Philippines’ chaotic brand of democracy has been brazen corruption by politicians, a major reason behind deep poverty in the Southeast Asian nation of 100 million people.
But the scam allegedly involving Revilla has been on such a scale that is has shocked a graft-weary public and dominated local media for months.
One of the other senators who has been indicted and facing arrest is Juan Ponce Enrile, a 90-year-old politician famous for his cunning who was defence minister during dictator Ferdinand Marcos’s martial law regime.
The other is Jose “Jinggoy” Estrada, the son of former president Joseph Estrada who was toppled in 2001 in a popular uprising triggered by his plundering of government coffers while in office.
All three senators have protested their innocence, insisting they were targeted simply because they were members of the political opposition.
But President Benigno Aquino’s government has hailed the charges filed against them as a vital moment in its quest to fight corruption.
“This is a milestone,” Justice Secretary Leila de Lima, who endorsed the case against the three, told AFP.
“We’re accomplishing what some people said was a near impossible task: to have these big personalities who are perceived as untouchable finally prosecuted,” she said.
De Lima said she expected arrest warrants issued against Estrada and Enrile by next week.
The case exploded last year when businesswoman Janet Lim-Napoles was accused of conniving with senators and congressmen in embezzling an estimated 10 billion pesos ($230 million dollars) in “pork barrel” funds allocated for development projects.
Lim-Napoles has also been detained, and Aquino’s government has said many other politicians are expected to be charged.
Aquino won the presidency in 2010 on a promise to end deep-seated corruption in the Philippines.
Aquino had succeeded in having corruption charges filed against his predecessor, Gloria Arroyo.
She has been detained since October 2012 while being tried for charges unrelated to the “pork barrel” scam, but the case is expected to take many years.