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Manila court enters not-guilty plea for senator

MANILA -- A Philippine court entered a not-guilty plea Friday for a senator and dictatorship-era martial law enforcer who has been detained on charges of economic plunder with two other colleagues, bringing the case a step closer to what would be the country's largest corruption trial in more than a decade.

The Sandiganbayan court made the move after ailing Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile refused to enter a plea to the large-scale corruption charge. The 90-year-old legislator, who has high blood pressure, was brought to the court in an ambulance from a police hospital, where he has been detained since surrendering last week.

The court ordered the arrest of Enrile and two other senators for allegedly receiving huge kickbacks in a scam that diverted millions of pesos (dollars) from anti-poverty and development funds allotted to lawmakers. They have denied any wrongdoing.

The court set a pre-trial conference for next month and then will announce a date for the trial, which would be the country's most high-profile since then President Joseph Estrada was tried for plunder in 2001, becoming the first Philippine president to be convicted for corruption. He was pardoned shortly after his conviction and is now mayor of the Philippine capital, Manila.

Enrile, a wealthy lawyer and businessman, was the defense minister when late strongman Ferdinand Marcos placed the Philippines under martial rule in 1972, heralding a 14-year dictatorship marked by widespread human rights violations and corruption.

Enrile broke from Marcos in 1986 and helped lead a “people power” revolt that ousted the dictator. In the tumultuous post-dictatorship era, he was detained twice after being linked to several military rebellions, including mutinies against President Corazon Aquino, late mother of the current president. But he continued to serve in government and later was elected to the Senate.

The arrests and prosecution of Enrile and the other two senators are a milestone in this Southeast Asian nation's long battle with corruption, which President Benigno Aquino III has blamed for causing the poverty that afflicts a fourth of the population. But it remains to be seen whether these would lead to major convictions, which have been rare in a notoriously slow justice system clogged by thousands of cases and tainted by allegations of corruption.

Aquino has been praised and criticized for his anti-corruption campaign.

Under Aquino, his predecessor has been detained for alleged vote-rigging and the first Supreme Court chief justice was impeached for allegedly not properly declaring his assets.

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