Cult leader in Philippines jailed 31 yrs for graft

Manila, Philippines – The Philippine anti-graft court sentenced the leader of a religious, anti-communist cult to more than 31 years in prison on Friday for corruption when he was mayor of a southern town in the early 1990s.

Ruben Ecleo, also on trial in another court over the murder of his wife, is worshipped by about 3 million followers, some of whom place his picture beside statues of Jesus Christ in the south of the mainly Roman Catholic country.

Ecleo was found guilty of ordering the release of nearly eight million pesos ($160,000) to three unfinished public construction projects in San Jose town in Surigao del Norte province between 1991 and 1994.

The court ordered him to pay the local government about 2.86 million pesos, the amount of the excess payments he had made.

Ecleo, also a musician with a guitar-shaped swimming pool at his house, stood quietly when the verdict was read out but stayed out of prison on 'humanitarian grounds' and a bond of 1 million pesos while he appeals his conviction to a higher court.

Ecleo is supreme master of the Philippine Benevolent Missionaries Association, a Christian-based group organised by his father in the 1960s and active in the fight against communist rebels on the southern island of Mindanao.

For the last six years, he has been on trial on the central island of Cebu for the murder of his wife. At least 16 people died in May 2000 when thousands of his followers tried to stop the police from arresting him.

Ecleo's mother, elected in 2004 as a congresswoman, is an ally of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

The Philippines is home to a variety of cult-like groups, including Tadtad and Ilaga, whose members have been accused of eating the hearts and kidneys of victims.