Calm in Philippines after ex-president's arrest

AP News
Posted: Nov 20, 2011 6:13 AM
Calm in Philippines after ex-president's arrest

It's business as usual in the Philippines, with no army unrest or fears of massive street protests despite the dramatic arrest of former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and a looming legal battle by her lawyers to seek her release, officials said Sunday.

Backers of the ailing Arroyo, who was arrested at a Manila hospital Friday for alleged election tampering, have accused President Benigno Aquino III's administration of filing the criminal complaint "with indecent haste" to prevent her from leaving the country. Arroyo, 64, had earlier obtained Supreme Court approval to go aboard for medical treatment.

Arroyo, who won a seat in the House of Representatives after her stormy nine-year presidency ended last year, once had strong ties to a group of loyal army generals who shielded her from four failed coup attempts sparked by a series of corruption scandals. All have since retired.

She also faced down a number of impeachment attempts while steadfastly denying any wrongdoing.

Budget Secretary Florencio Abad, an Aquino political adviser, said the relative calm accompanying Arroyo's arrest underscored her low popularity.

While there was no public grumbling in the military, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said he checked just the same with senior commanders, who reported nothing unusual. "I checked on the service commanders and asked them 'how are our people?' and was told, 'business as usual sir.'"

Gazmin said that while troops should not dabble in politics, he ordered commanders to explain recent developments concerning Arroyo to soldiers so they would not be misled by partisan groups that might seek the military's backing.

The military has a long history of coup attempts, although none has been successful.

Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo, who oversees the national police, said he was not ruling out possible pro-Arroyo rallies as her lawyers fight her arrest on the nonbailable charge of election sabotage.

But he said he was surprised that no pro-Arroyo rallies were staged last week. Instead, left-wing groups took to the streets to welcome her arrest and criticize the government for the delay in her indictment. Currently, there is no need to raise security alert levels, Robredo said.

"In any transition from the old to the new, you usually can't expect a lack of tensions," Robredo told The Associated Press. "If there is something that provides stability now, it's the people."

Cellphone messages last week called on Arroyo followers to gather at the historic EDSA pro-democracy shrine, where "people power" revolts against ex-presidents Ferdinand Marcos and Joseph Estrada erupted, but nobody turned up, he said.

Arroyo lawyer Ferdinand Topacio said her followers wanted to gather at the hospital to show support, but were told to just pray for her health and send letters to officials and newspapers claiming political persecution of her.

"She was once a president. She's not without support," Topacio told reporters Sunday outside the hospital.

Aquino has given instructions to treat Arroyo "with respect as a former president who remains innocent until proven guilty," Robredo said. He said only four police officers are guarding her 16th-floor hospital suite, where she was fingerprinted and photographed by police Friday.

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Her arrest capped a day of legal drama in which the Supreme Court, consisting mostly of justices appointed by Arroyo, upheld her right to travel abroad but a lower court accepted the formal charges against her. The government rushed the case in court, saying Arroyo may be trying to evade justice because of her plan to seek medical treatment abroad.

Topacio said he will petition the Supreme Court on Monday to suspend the arrest warrant. He earlier said the government filed the charges with "indecent haste" and the quickness of the arrest was a "minor miracle" in the notoriously slow Philippine judicial system.

"We're preparing countercharges" for violations of Arroyo's basic rights, Topacio said Sunday.

Aquino, the son of pro-democracy icons, was overwhelmingly elected last year on promises to rid the Philippines of pervasive corruption and has said he wants to start with Arroyo.

The election sabotage charge carries a maximum penalty of 40 years in prison and stems from allegations Arroyo conspired to tamper with the results of 2007 congressional polls to favor her candidates.

She was accused of having direct knowledge of massive cheating in an autonomous Muslim region in the southern Philippines, the country's poorest and notoriously corrupt region.

More than a dozen complaints against Arroyo, including alleged plunder, are being investigated by the Justice Department and the Ombudsman, which looks into corruption cases involving officials, Aquino adviser Ronald Llamas said.