Philippine court orders third senator arrested over graft scandal

MANILA (AFP) - A Philippine court on Friday ordered the arrest of Senator Juan Ponce Enrile, one of the country's most prominent politicians and the third legislator facing criminal charges in a massive corruption scandal.

The 90-year-old former defence secretary, senate president, and martial-law enforcer of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos is accused of taking nearly US$4 million (S$5 million) in kickbacks from illegally diverted state funds.

"The first order of arrest is issued against Senator Juan Ponce Enrile," court clerk Dennis Pulma told reporters, reading from a resolution of a special anti-graft tribunal that has also ordered four other suspects detained, including an aide to the politician.

Enrile's spokeswoman Lizette Nepomuceno told AFP he was consulting his lawyers.

Enrile is the third member of the 24-seat Filipino senate to be ordered arrested by the court in a case that has staggered the nation, in which dozens of lawmakers, their staff and other officials are accused of embezzling millions of dollars alloted for development projects.

Senators Jose Estrada - son of a former president - and Ramon Revilla, also an action film star, were arrested last month.

The trio were among dozens indicted earlier this year.

Enrile was accused of pocketing 172 million pesos (S$4.9 million) in public funds that were allegedly diverted to ghost projects.

He has been charged with one count of "plunder", punishable by life imprisonment.

The case erupted last year when businesswoman Janet Napoles was accused of colluding with lawmakers to embezzle an estimated 10 billion pesos from legislators' "pork barrel" funds, or money for their pet projects.

Napoles initially denied any wrongdoing, then in a failed effort to turn state witness gave prosecutors a list implicating more than 100 lawmakers. She has also been charged with plunder.

Two of those on the list are now members of President Benigno Aquino's Cabinet, but they deny the charges and say Napoles is spreading false information to deflect blame.

Aquino came to power in a landslide election victory in 2010, pledging to sweep away massive corruption that he blames for the Philippines' stubbornly high levels of poverty.