MANILA, December 22, 2005
 (STAR) The Arroyo administration vigorously contested yesterday a report by independent monitoring group Freedom House that downgraded the Philippines from "free" to only "partly free."

"Those who say that there is no freedom in the Philippines are out of touch with reality," Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye said in a statement.

The US-based group said in a report released Monday that the number of electoral democracies around the world had risen from 119 to 122 this year amid encouraging inroads in the Middle East and Africa.

But it reduced the rating of the Philippines "based on credible allegations of massive electoral fraud, corruption, and the government’s intimidation of elements in the political opposition."

Mrs. Arroyo survived an impeachment vote in September that arose from allegations she cheated to win the May 2004 presidential election.

"All the people at Freedom House have to do is to come to the Philippines," Bunye said. "They can see for themselves how constitutional democracy works, how the media works and how the people freely express themselves."

In its report, Freedom House expressed concern about countries like the United States and France, where it saw "looming problems" with electoral setups and immigrant integration.

However, the increase in the number of electoral democracies is encouraging according to Arch Puddington, director of research at the organization.

"Among other things, the past year has been notable for terrorist violence, ethnic cleansing, civil conflict, catastrophic natural disasters, and geopolitical polarization," he added. "That freedom could thrive in this environment is impressive."

The three additions to the list of electoral democracies were the African nations of Burundi, Liberia and the Central African Republic.

The three countries afforded considerable space for political opposition and met the minimum standard of a fair vote count, the report said.

But the most significant improvements were noted in the Middle East, where Lebanon was upgraded from "not free" to "partly free," despite a series of political killings that shook the country.

The Lebanese witnessed major improvements in both political rights and civil liberties following the withdrawal of Syrian troops based in the country, the report said.

It also noted elections held in Iraq, Egypt, and the Palestinian territories, the introduction of women’s suffrage in Kuwait, and improvements in Saudi Arabia’s media environment among other encouraging signs in the region. — AFP

Erap seeks longer furlough The Philippine Star 12/22/2005

Detained President Joseph Estrada asked the Sandiganbayan yesterday to extend the separate 24-hour Christmas and New Year special passes the court granted him to visit his ailing 100-year-old mother.

Estrada argued his family needed the time to reunite for the holidays.

Former senator Rene Saguisag, lead counsel of Estrada, requested the justices of the special division to grant an extension of 14 more hours in order to visit his mother, Mary Marcelo-Ejercito, who remains confined at the San Juan Medical Center.

The anti-graft court earlier allowed the ousted leader to leave his 15-hectare resthouse in Tanay, Rizal — where he has been detained since July 2004 while undergoing a plunder trial — on 5 p.m. of Dec. 24 to 5 p.m. of Dec. 25 for Christmas and 5 p.m. of Dec. 31 to 5 p.m. of Jan. 1 for the New Year.

Estrada now wants the justices to modify and extend the passes they issued him to 7 a.m. of Dec. 26 for Christmas and until 7 a.m. of Jan. 2 for the New Year, or an extension of 14 hours each.

"It is on Christmas night when the Estradas gather for noche buena while Jan. 1 is the birth date of a sister and the family gathering is in the evening," Estrada said in his two-page urgent manifestation and motion.

"It is most respectfully importuned and beseeched that this pass be extended with the venue moved during the extension most respectfully sought to Polk street (in North Greenhills Subdivision, San Juan) which is larger than the home of his mother, to accommodate the huge Estrada clan," he suggested.

Estrada, 68, was allowed a 36-hour pass after he paid his last respects to his elder brother Antonio, who died recently, at 12 noon of Dec. 16. Afterward, Estrada proceeded to the San Juan Medical Center to visit his mother. He stayed there until 7 a.m. of Dec. 17.

Chief Special Prosecutor Dennis Villa Ignacio posed no objection to the former president’s request. — Delon Porcalla

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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