MANILA, June 11, 2003 (AFP) - President Gloria Arroyo on Wednesday denounced as "pure harassment" a bid by her deposed predecessor Joseph Estrada to put her on the witness stand as part of his legal strategy to win acquittal from a corruption case that could carry a death sentence.

The special court trying Estrada for plunder has set a hearing Monday on his formal motion to call Arroyo, Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes and a number of Supreme Court justices to the witness stand.

"This is pure harassment and a dilatory tactic that detracts from the public interest and the national welfare," Arroyo said in a statement.

Estrada's unorthodox legal strategy to be acquitted on charges he plundered a personal fortune of US$80 million is based on an assertion that he was illegally toppled by a January 2001 military coup abetted by the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court has already ruled that the presidential succession, triggered by a military-backed popular revolt that cut short his 30-month rule, was legal.

Estrada, detained at a military hospital here since May 2001, insists he cannot be sued because he remains the legal president. The plunder charge is theoretically punishable by death.

"The president is busy attending to the strategic programs that would bring jobs, security, and peace to the people," the Arroyo statement said.

"This issue is farthest from her mind at the moment. She wants unity among the people. She will not be distracted by divisive issues."

Estrada lawyer Rene Saguisag warned, however, that Arroyo would be liable for contempt of court, punishable by imprisonment or fines, should the graft court rule in Estrada's favor and compel her to take the stand.

A second Estrada lawyer, Alan Paguia, denied that his client was merely maneuvering to delay the plunder trial.

"Crimes have been committed here. Coup d'etat remains a crime up to now. Coup d'etat was a special crime committed on January 20, 2001. Rebellion is a crime, mutiny is a crime and definitely those who hold the power cannot accept the possibility of their being charged later," said Paguia.

"So if they say we are moving heaven and earth to stop the plunder proceedings, on the contrary they are the ones moving heaven and earth to conceal from the Filipino people the truth regarding the crimes committed during the unconstitutional takeover."

When Reyes, who was military chief of staff during the bloodless 2001 revolt, "betrayed his oath, it was in the eyes of man another successful coup d'etat. People dispute it, but that's one school of thought," Saguisag said.

Paguia said none of the constitutional requirements for a presidential succession between elections -- death, resignation, permanent incapacitation, or removal by impeachment of the incumbent -- existed when Arroyo assumed the presidency.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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