Ex-Philippines president tastes freedom

MANILA, Philippines – Joseph Estrada, the ousted former president and action hero free for the first time in 6 1/2 years a pardon by his successor, made a joyous return home on Friday, greeted by thousands of cheering suporters.

He was convicted last month on graft charges and given a life sentence. President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo pardoned him Thursday.

Many questioned the timing of the pardon: Arroyo is currently fighting a third impeachment attempt and calls for her resignation. But Estrada, who has been one of Arroyo’s chief critics in the past six years, sounded conciliatory for the first time since his ouster.

“There is no substitute for freedom,” the 70-year-old told reporters before leaving the villa where he has spent most of his time in detention since 2001, when he was forced out by the country’s second “people power” revolt and then arrested.

His departure from house arrest was followed by a speech to thousands of cheering supporters in Manila‘s San Juan district, where he once served as mayor, then a bedside visit to his ailing 102-year-old mother and a dinner of his favorite foods. His wife said she was making rice cake and paella.

Estrada thanked Arroyo, reiterated his wish to live the life of a “plain citizen” and, in a turnaround from previous attacks on the administration, urged his supporters to back Arroyo’s programs to combat poverty and hunger.

“I am aware of the agonizing times and tough choices that Mrs. Arroyo has had to wade through before arriving at this executive decision,” Estrada said.

While he admitted he made mistakes in office, Estrada denied corruption was among them. He claimed he twice turned down offers that he could avoid being charged if he left the country. Despite his conviction in court, he said he felt he had been acquitted by public opinion.

“I have no plan to rejoin dirty politics,” he told the crowd chanting his name. “My remaining time will be offered in the service of our people.”

Arroyo said the pardon was for the greater good to end “the single most significant cause of political noise and controversy” during her tumultuous time in office. She cited the pardons of former U.S. and South Korean presidents as precedents.

“In the end, we had to make a decision that was bound to please and displease, impress and confound, unite and divide,” Arroyo said in a speech to businessmen.

“Let us now all pray, reflect and join hands to make the Estrada pardon a powerful force for righteousness, compassion, healing, national stability and advancement. The people deserve peace, order and political and economic stability.”

Arroyo’s spokesman, Ignacio Bunye, said the pardon restored Estrada’s civil and political rights. However, a court ruling that forfeited Estrada’s villa and more than $15.5 million in savings believed owned by Estrada remained in effect.

Some supporters, mostly from the disenfranchised urban poor, trooped to Estrada’s villa in Tanay for a glimpse of the man many consider a hero.

“We want to see the president before he leaves,” said Erlinda Esteban, a 71-year-old farmer, who had walked for an hour from her village because she could not afford the bus fare.

“He has been our idol since he was an actor and he is a good man,” said Leticia Diocera.

State prosecutor Dennis Villa-Ignacio criticized Estrada’s pardon, saying it amounted to a license to break the law.

Others called it a cynical effort by Arroyo to draw attention away from her own alleged misdeeds and warned it could undermine efforts to stamp out official corruption.


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