MANILA, November 19, 2003  (BULLETIN) By Ferdie J. Maglalang - Malacañang defended anew yesterday an earlier decision by President Arroyo to allow her predecessor, former President Joseph Estrada, to leave the country for immediate surgery of his knee in the United States.

Presidential spokesman Ignacio Bunye, defending Arroyo from criticisms for her change of heart, said: "The President has expressed her personal feelings on this issue and let us leave it at that. There is no point in putting extraneous meaning to her words. Everyone is entitled to express sincere compassion and no one should read politics or judicial interference into it."

Bunye, however, said that while the President may have her personal view on the matter, she is leaving it to the Sandiganbayan to determine whether Estrada's petition should be granted or rejected.

"The President repeatedly said that specific issues, such as the request for treatment in the United States, are subject to the exclusive jurisdiction of the Sandiganbayan. The executive has never interfered with the decisions of the court," he said.

Former President Estrada earlier petitioned the Sandiganbayan to allow him his constitutional right to receive immediate medical treatment abroad since the country lacks the facility, if not the expertise, to treat his knee ailment.

The government's prosecution team is reportedly not inclined to object before the Sandiganbayan to the Estrada petition following the President's firm resolve to extend her hand of reconciliation to her political opponents.

Deputy presidential spokesman Ricardo Saludo had earlier said that the President had been advised that allowing Estrada to leave the country and get a knee surgery might speed up the administration's resolve to reconcile with its political opponents and heal the country's wounds.

"This is one of the many issues that may help push reconciliation. The President is not raising any objection," he said.

"But let me repeat it, this matter is for the Sandiganbayan to decide," he said.

Saludo said that the government is not looking at any out of court settlement with Estrada and other parties like the Marcoses and the Cojuangcos to achieve national reconciliation.

"In the President's call for reconciliation, one constant principle is to satisfy the demands of justice and the law. The President has said that there should be a dignified admission of wrongdoing as well as substantial restitution," he said.

Atienza's view

Manila Mayor Jose Atienza Jr. said yesterday that allowing former President Joseph Estrada to go to the United States to undergo medical treatment will strongly foster reconciliation and unity in the country.

"President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo's compassionate gesture of consenting to former President Estrada's medical trip to the United States is most welcome. We hope that the judiciary, particularly the Sandiganbayan, would follow through and allow it," Atienza said.

He also said that it is Estrada's right to choose his doctors as well as the medical facility for his medical treatment.

"We cannot force the former president's doctors to come to the country if in their professional judgment it would be to the best interest of their patient to undergo medical treatment in the United States," the Manila mayor said.

Atienza said that allowing Estrada to seek medical treatment abroad would be good for the country's economy which has been severely affected by political bickerings and destabilization attempts.

"This would enhance the country's image in the international arena as it would show that we as a people are exerting all efforts to foster unity," Atienza said. "We could achieve so much more if we are united and moving towards one direction."

On security concerns raised by some quarters, Atienza said that he does not foresee any problem since the Philippine government can always ask the United States government to provide the necessary security measures for Estrada.

Mayor Estrada

San Juan Mayor Joseph Victor Ejercito said yesterday that President Arroyo has agreed to a knee operation of former President Joseph Estrada abroad because she wants the latter out of the picture while during her campaign for the presidency next year.

"If President Arroyo is really sincere in allowing my father to have the operation in the US, she should have given her permission a long time ago for humanitarian reasons," the mayor said.

Arroyo, according to Ejercito, wants to remove his father from the political scene during the campaign period because the former president still commands 35 percent of the voters.

"The former President's health has deteriorated tremendously. The endorsement came too late because the knee ailment has become complicated. He has suffered too long," the San Jan mayor said.

Ejercito said their family does not owe Arroyo any debt of gratitude because of recent events. (Madelynne Dominguez)

Withdraw objection

The camp of former President Joseph Estrada challenged President Arroyo yesterday to direct the prosecutors of the plunder and other charges against the deposed leader in the Sandiganbayan to withdraw their objection to Estrada's knee operation in the United States.

Estrada's spokesman Raymond Fortun said this would allow them to gauge the sincerity of the Chief Executive when she announced through her aides that she no longer objects to her predecessor's trip abroad.

Fortun said President Arroyo should put into action her "publicity gimmick" intended for her to win the votes of the former president's supporters.

"We are sick and tired of hearing and reading in the papers that Malacañang poses 'no objection' to the knee operation of President Estrada abroad," Fortun said.

"If this is not a mere publicity gimmick intended merely to woo the masa vote, Arroyo should… direct the prosecution to withdraw its opposition to the application for medical treatment abroad filed by Estrada's de officio lawyers," Fortun said in a statement released through Estrada's political party Puwersa ng Masang Pilipino.

Fortun said it would be easy for Arroyo to ask Ombudsman Simeon V. Marcelo, who supervises the prosecution panel in the Estrada cases, to drop their opposition because "it is common knowledge that Marcelo is a former personal lawyer of Mrs. Arroyo whom she hand-picked to head the anti-graft body."

The other day, Special Prosecutor Dennis M. Villa-Ignacio, head of the prosecution panel, said they have to stand firm in their decision to oppose Estrada's petition as he insisted that the medical procedure the deposed leader wanted done abroad could be done in the Philippines with equal or even better results.

Villa-Ignacio said they would not compromise their position and that no one, not even the President, can influence them.

He said that the Office of the Ombudsman is an independent body and as such, it is not inclined to abide by the decision of the executive department.

Also yesterday, Fortun strongly denied that Estrada has entered into a deal with Malacañang for his surgery abroad.

"All this rumor about President Estrada entering into a deal with Mrs. Arroyo is just that, rumor. If Mrs. Arroyo wants to see him cured, this should not be tied to any political concession. If President Estrada intends to strike a deal with the present Palace occupants, he could have made it a long time ago," Fortun said. (Edmer F. Panesa)

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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