ESTRADA WINS MEDICAL FURLOUGH FROM ANTI-GRAFT COURT

MANILA, December 23, 2003  (STAR) (AFP) - A court on Tuesday released former president Joseph Estrada from detention for three months to allow him to seek medical treatment in the United States.

Estrada, who was ousted by a military-backed popular revolt in 2001 amid allegations of massive corruption, had sought permission from the Sandiganbayan anti-graft court to have his arthritic knees operated on in the United States.

Estrada has to deposit a one million peso (18,181 US dollar) bond and be accompanied by four Filipino policemen to ensure he will not escape, the court said.

The court said Estrada should be back by the end of March to resume his trial on charges he plundered some 80 million dollars from state coffers during his 30 months in office.

President Gloria Arroyo's spokesman Ignacio Bunyes said the government welcomed the decision on humanitarian grounds.

"We respect the decision of the court," Bunye said. "The court acted in its independent and enlightened judgment after a close study of the issues and thought this was the most judicious course of action."

The court's decision came a month after Arroyo called for national reconciliation and sent fence-mending feelers to her rivals, including Estrada's camp.

Critics claimed that the move was a bid to soften opposition to Arroyo ahead of the May 2004 presidential polls, in which she is seeking a second term.

Estrada remains the de facto head of the opposition and still wields considerable influence despite being detained.

Some 10,000 Estrada supporters last month clashed with police in Manila's financial center of Makati, calling for Arroyo's ouster, and the government remains wary of alleged destabilization moves linked to political figures close to the former president.

Estrada's close friend, movie icon Fernando Poe, on Monday also formally accepted the opposition's nomination to become its standard bearer for the presidential race.

Like Estrada, Poe is extremely popular and has been beating Arroyo in recent surveys.


Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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