MANILA (Reuters) - Philippine government prosecutors will file plunder cases in an anti-graft court against three senators for misuse of congressional funds worth billions of pesos, a breakthrough in Manila's fight against corruption, officials said on Tuesday.
President Benigno Aquino, who took office in 2010 on a promise of good governance and battling graft, enjoys popularity ratings of more than 70 percent, but the Philippines remains one of the most corrupt countries in East Asia.
The three senators - Juan Ponce Enrile, former movie actor Ramon Revilla Jr and Jose "Jinggoy" Estrada, son of former president and Manila Mayor Joseph Estada - were found to have amassed 172 million pesos, 242 million pesos and 183 million pesos, respectively, from illegal kickbacks.
"The three senators took undue advantage of their official position to illegally divert their congressional allocations in exchange for kickbacks, with the projects turning out to be ghost projects," the Office of the Ombudsman, an agency that investigates and prosecutes corruption, said in a statement.
Seven others will also be charged, including a businesswoman at the centre of the corruption scandal involving "pork barrel" funds channeled to fictitious non-government bodies (NGOs).
The senators face life imprisonment and forfeiture of any assets they may have illegally acquired.
Manila loses about 200 billion pesos a year to corruption, or about 1.8 percent of economic output. It has drained government coffers and entrenched poverty in the Philippines, a country of 97 million people.
But under the Aquino administration, it has improved its image, moving up 11 places in last year's Transparency International index. It now ranks 94th of 177 countries.
In 2012, the Philippines was ranked 105th, up from 129th in 2011.
After six months of investigation, a panel of anti-graft prosecutors found probable cause to indict the three men for misuse of their congressional funds.
The cases against them stemmed from the expose of three whistleblowers about a "pork barrel" involving the use of huge sums from the country's Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) or by alleged dummy NGOs for purported "ghost" projects.
Janet Lim Napoles, a businesswoman who came up with the scheme to divert congressional allocations to kickbacks, has been detained in a police camp south of Manila. All three whistleblowers are former employees of Napoles.
The charges are merely an exercise in persecution, Joel Bodegon, a lawyer for Senator Revilla, said in a statement.
"A thorough and just examination and appreciation of all existing pieces of evidence will lead to only one conclusion, and that is the vindication of Senator Revilla," he added.
Estrada, for his part, said he would not run away but face the charges in court, hoping to clear his name. Enrile could not immediately be reached for comment.
(Reporting by Manuel Mogato; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)