MANILA, January 14, 2003 (STAR)  By Jose Rodel Clapano  - The court-appointed lawyers of jailed former President Joseph Estrada accused President Arroyo yesterday of directly intervening with the function of the judiciary when she expressed her wish over the weekend for Estrada’s cases to be concluded before her term ends next year.

"The executive department should not meddle with the Sandiganbayan because the two are independent agencies of the government," lawyer Prospero Crescini, one of Estrada’s counsels said.

As the most powerful woman and government official in the country, he said Mrs. Arroyo should not issue statements that would tend to influence the proceedings in the Sandiganbayan especially involving the case of her predecessor who was ousted through a military-backed people’s revolt.

"We hope that the Sandiganbayan would ignore the call of the President. Bless the Sandiganbayan. President Arroyo should shut her mouth," he suggested.

Assistant Ombudsman Dennis Villa-Ignacio, however, defended the President saying that Mrs. Arroyo simply expressed her wish that the court, the prosecution and the defense would finish the proceedings of Estrada’s cases soon.

"It is not direct intervention. It was just a wish. We can finish the case within this year if the defense will not delay the proceedings of the case," he said.

According to Villa-Ignacio, the proceedings are in fact going very fast since the special division took over the case. And it could even move faster if the court would allow the holding of trial thrice a week.

Lawyer Renato Bocar, official spokesman for the Sandiganbayan special division, said that Mrs. Arroyo’s statement was merely "wishful thinking" and does not affect the justices handling the Estrada cases.

Speeding up trial would only be possible, he said, "if the defense and the prosecution were under the court’s control."

However, the court’s control over the prosecution and the defense panel is limited to seeing to it that redundancies in the presentation of corroborating testimonies were not repeated in court.

"They all have the freedom to present their own evidence," Bocar said.

Bocar disclosed that justices handling Estrada’s cases have to even sacrifice the other cases they are handling in their respective divisions to give utmost priority to the cases of the ousted chief executive.

Meanwhile, lawyer Raymond Fortun, Estrada’s official spokesman, said that President’s principal design in issuing her statement is "to pressure the Sandiganbayan into convicting President Estrada."

"President Arroyo wants to solidify her control over the presidency. The undue influence by Mrs. Arroyo in a court case, as well as an attack by the sitting president on the independence of a separate branch of government, is contradictory to her statement for national reconciliation," Fortun said.

He added that the main purpose of the Chief Executive in issuing the statement is to influence the Sandiganbayan to rule in favor of her illegitimate government.

Fortun pointed out that Mrs. Arroyo did not express her desire for a speedy resolution of Estrada’s cases so that those not guilty, like Estrada, would regain their liberty at the earliest possible time.

"(Former) President Estrada is not interested anyway in the Sandiganbayan proceedings. As President Estrada stated, time and again, let us not waste any further time and resources of the government on this and send him straight to Muntinlupa. That will fulfill Arroyo’s statement," he said.

Meanwhile, Acting Presiding Justice Minita Chico-Nazario reportedly blew her top yesterday over the "childish" debates between the prosecution and Estrada’s counsels over the handling of the documents of the prosecution team.

Nazario’s ire was directed at Villa-Ignacio and former anti-graft court presiding justice Manuel Pamaran who debated heatedly on the defense panel’s alleged pullout of documents owned by the prosecution without permission, and which allegedly ruined the sequence of the documents.

"Stop that. You are mature people. You are graduates of the best law schools. These are matters that are funny to the public. Let’s avoid murmuring. Our country has many more problems, so stop that. You just talk it out among yourselves," Nazario reprimanded the lawyers.

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