|Chief Justice Renato Corona attended a mass outside the supreme court ahead of his impeachment [AFP]
The Philippines' senate has begun hearing the impeachment of Renato Corona, the Philippines' chief justice accused of corruption and trying to obstruct the prosecution of Gloria Arroyo, the country's former president.
The nationally televised proceedings prompted rival demonstrations in Manila on Monday, with more than 300 left-wing activists demanding Corona's conviction rallying just a short distance away from dozens of Corona's supporters.
Corona led a rally of hundreds of court employees including judges before the trial, who called the case an "end of judicial independence" and said the chief justice was being "vilified" by the current administration.
"Many court employees came to work dressed in black on Monday in a show of support for their chief justice," said Al Jazeera's Marga Ortigas, reporting from Manila.
Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile however promised that his chamber, comprising members of the country's 23-seat senate, would hold an impartial and fair trial for Corona, who was impeached by the House of Representatives last month on allegations that include a bias for Arroyo, who has been detained on vote-rigging charges.
Corona is the most high-profile figure so far to answer charges in an anti-graft campaign launched by Benigno Aquino, the current president who won a landslide election victory in 2010 on a pledge to tackle corruption.
"We are going through a process to stop a rogue magistrate from completely crushing the sacred institution of the supreme court," Aquino said in the lead-up to the case, which is said to take months.
Corona has denied any wrongdoing and has vowed to defend the court's independence.
"I have not sinned against the president. I have not sinned against the people. I have not stolen from anyone,' 'he said before impeachment proceedings began.
Arroyo, 64, was arrested in November last year on charges of rigging the 2007 senatorial elections and is now awaiting trial in a military hospital where she is being treated for what she says is a rare spinal illness.
Arroyo installed Corona, her former chief of staff, to the top judicial post shortly before she stepped down as president in 2010 in a move that Aquino said ignored a constitutional ban on "midnight appointments" by outgoing leaders.
Public opinion polls show Aquino enjoys overwhelming backing for his anti-graft efforts, though his critics and even some supporters say he has been employing unnecessarily bruising tactics.
Ortigas said some people believed that Corona, though he had a case to answer, had not been given due process to explain himself or prepare his defence.
Some people have also accused Aquino of overstepping constitutional boundaries while going after Corona.
In an interview on ANC television, Corona rejected calls by critics to resign and spare the country from a divisive process.
"Only death," Corona said when asked what would force him to quit. "If they want to remove me from my post, they should kill me."
Corona's words reinforce concerns that the impeachment case could raise political tensions to a dangerous level in a country with a turbulent recent history of dictatorships, revolutions and military coup attempts.