MANILA, Philippines (AP) — A popular Philippine senator and action movie star surrendered Friday after an anti-graft court ordered his arrest on large-scale corruption charges in a rare spectacle of the country's political elite being made to answer for alleged crimes.
Sen. Ramon Revilla Jr., a member of a powerful political clan and one of the country's most famous movie and TV celebrities, arrived in a convoy of SUVs with his wife, children and fans at the Sandiganbayan anti-graft court in the capital. He was then brought to police headquarters, where his fingerprints and mug shots were taken before his detention. TV networks beamed his surrender live nationwide.
Revilla is one of three influential senators indicted early this month for allegedly receiving huge kickbacks from state anti-poverty and development funds. He says he is innocent.
"Even in my dreams I didn't see this coming," Revilla said at his mansion in Cavite province, south of Manila, where his fans and relatives gathered to show support before his trip to the court. "It's like a nightmare I can't wake up from."
Revilla's lawyer, Joel Bodegon said he filed a petition for bail and requested a hearing next week. Plunder carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment and is not bailable unless the judge deems the evidence weak.
The anti-graft court has not yet issued arrest warrants for the other two senators, Juan Ponce Enrile and Jinggoy Estrada.
Corruption has plagued this poor Southeast Asian nation of 97 million for decades, fostered by a culture of impunity by powerful politicians, businessmen and their allies, weak law enforcement and a notoriously slow justice system.
A reformist president, Benigno Aquino III, has promised to break with the past. Since he came to office in 2010, his predecessor has been detained on vote-rigging charges and the Supreme Court chief justice impeached for the first time for not disclosing $2.4 million in his bank accounts.
A few top officials have been prosecuted until now, leading to criticism that Aquino, himself a scion of a political dynasty, was not aggressively targeting political allies also allegedly linked to graft.
Enrile, one of the other two senators named in the corruption scandal, is one of the country's oldest and most powerful politicians. The 90-year-old wealthy businessman and former Senate president, he was defense minister when dictator Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law in the Philippines in 1972 and later was implicated in several coup attempts against Aquino's mother, former President Corazon Aquino.
Jinggoy Estrada is the son of a president deposed by a nonviolent uprising in 2001 for plunder. Joseph Estrada was later convicted and pardoned.
All three senators were first implicated in the corruption saga during an investigation of a businesswoman accused of colluding with lawmakers in skimming money from the legislators' allocations for anti-poverty and development projects.
"The issuance of the arrest order for Senator Revilla and others involved in the plunder case as a result of the alleged wrongful use of state funds is an important step in the quest for justice," presidential spokesman Herminio Coloma said.
Associated Press writers Jim Gomez and Teresa Cerojano contributed to this report.