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Philippine Government Pardons Former President Joseph Estrada

Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo has pardoned former President Joseph Estrada who was convicted in September of corruption and sentenced to life in prison. Douglas Bakshian reports from Manila.

Presidential spokesman Ignacio Bunye says the pardon was granted under an existing government policy of releasing prisoners who are 70 years old, and because Estrada has publicly committed to not run for office again.

"Executive clemency to Joseph Ejercito Estrada, convicted by Sandiganbayan [anti-corruption court] of plunder and imposed the penalty of reclusion perpetual. He is hereby restored to his civil and political rights," said Bunye.

The action comes just days after Estrada asked Mrs. Arroyo to pardon him in what his lawyers described as the national interest. The former president had previously insisted he would reject any deal with Mrs. Arroyo.

Estrada was convicted in September after a six-year trial. He was found guilty of plunder for amassing millions of dollars while in office from illegal gambling and taking illegal commissions from the purchase of shares by government pension funds.

The Philippine media have been giving the pardon issue heavy coverage in recent days with editorials warning against the dangers of a deal favoring Estrada.

Former president Fidel Ramos also spoke out on the issue. In a television interview before the pardon, Mr. Ramos said Mrs. Arroyo must carefully consider the implications.

"It would be a terrible calamity to the great, great, great majority of the Filipino people who suffered from the plunder that has been proven in court after due trial, beyond reasonable doubt," said Ramos. "She must consider and weigh very carefully what ordinary people might do. What the victims of the so-called plunder might do."

The case marks a bitter chapter in Philippine politics. Estrada was pushed from power by a popular revolt in 2001 with the backing of the military, and replaced by Mrs. Arroyo, who was then vice president.

A former actor, Estrada was elected in 1998 by a huge margin. He was popular among the country's poor who knew him from movie roles in which he played the hero of the underdog. He still popular with the masses and has always denied the charges against him.