JANUARY 12, 2007 (STAR) By Paolo Romero - For national reconciliation, President Arroyo is supporting moves to have deposed President Joseph Estrada released on recognizance pending the final resolution of his plunder case by the Sandiganbayan, presidential chief of staff Michael Defensor said yesterday.

Defensor, however, said there could be no official move from the Palace to help Estrada’s bid for release on recognizance, as Mrs. Arroyo could not interfere in judicial proceedings.

The release of the ousted president on recognizance, or on the strength of the word of an eminent person that he would not flee, had earlier been proposed by Defensor, who said it would be the focus of his campaign platform when he runs for senator in the May elections.

He pointed out that recognizance will not in any way affect the outcome of the plunder case.

Defensor was tasked by Mrs. Arroyo two years ago to spearhead reconciliation talks with Estrada as a way of "healing the wounds of Edsa."

Defensor said he hopes the prosecutor and the Office of the Ombudsman would not object once Estrada petitions for recognizance with the Sandiganbayan.

As of yesterday, lawyers of the deposed president were already set to file a petition asking the Sandiganbayan to release the detained former president on recognizance.

"Based on recent developments, people want President Estrada to be released and his lawyers will file a petition to release him on recognizance," Estrada’s spokesman and former immigration commissioner Rufus Rodriguez said yesterday.

Rodriguez said Estrada welcomes Defensor’s statements, but is wary about the proposal as election is drawing near.

Incidentally, in 2000, Defensor, then a Quezon City congressman, was among several impeachment complainants against Estrada, who was later ousted from office in the wake of the aborted Senate impeachment trial on corruption charges.

Critics of Defensor said he floated Estrada’s release to gain media mileage.

Rodriguez insisted, however, that there is no reason why Estrada could not be released on recognizance, as he is not a flight risk.

"He is not a flight risk. He is waiting for an acquittal. He is confident that he has a strong case," Rodriguez said.

Critical to the decision-making of the Sandiganbayan whether to allow or not Estrada’s conditional release is the evaluation of the authorities, particularly the Philippine National Police (PNP).

Defensor said the PNP would be consulted by the Sandiganbayan justices on whether releasing Estrada would not cause any security problems or allow him to escape.

He also asked the Senate to immediately act on the proposed bill filed by Cagayan de Oro Rep. Constantino Jaraula to give temporary freedom to Estrada. He pointed out that the bill would gain the support of the Senate since two of its members are former First Lady Luisa "Loi" Ejercito and her son, Sen. Jinggoy Estrada.

Mrs. Arroyo’s chief aide does not see any "complications" if Estrada is released before the May elections and campaigns for opposition candidates.

"The political climate and political infighting may slow down the economy and is affecting the economic growth of the country and this I think is the root cause of division in the country," Defensor said. No to recognizance Surigao del Sur Rep. Prospero Pichay Jr. opposed yesterday the proposal to release ousted President Estrada on recognizance.

"That would be against the rule of law that we want to uphold and against the judicial process," Pichay told a news forum at the Serye Café in Quezon City.

He said if Estrada is released on recognizance, other detainees would ask for the same privilege.

"The government might as well free all of them on recognizance. Then, we might as well forget about the law and the judicial process," he added.

Under Philippine laws, a jailed person may be given temporary liberty by posting bail or by being released through recognizance. Since Estrada is facing plunder charges, which is not a bailable offense, his last recourse is to be released on recognizance.

The deposed president is actually on "house arrest" at his sprawling rest house in Tanay, Rizal.

In opposing Defensor’s proposal, Pichay pointed out that being on "rest house arrest" is already a special privilege for the disgraced former president.

He also said that he believes the former president himself would not want to be freed on the strength of another person’s word that he would not leave the country and will continue to face his plunder case.

"What he wants is speedy trial and a fast decision on his case. The Sandiganbayan should terminate the hearings and decide on the plunder charges against him as soon as possible," he said.

He noted that the case has already dragged for more than five years.

If convicted, Estrada could seek other remedies like appealing his conviction to the Supreme Court or asking presidential pardon.

"No one should meddle with the judicial process and propose a special treatment for him. That is not what he wants," Pichay stressed.

Estrada’s family initially criticized Defensor for his proposal.

Senator Estrada said Mrs. Arroyo’s aide merely wants to boost his political stock with the former president’s supporters in preparation for his senatorial bid.

Manila Mayor Lito Atienza, a Liberal Party member like Defensor, supports the latter’s proposal. Release of bio-flick ‘illusory’ Meanwhile, Rodriguez yesterday criticized the decision of the Movie and Television Review and Classification Board (MTRCB) appeals committee to lift the ban on the biographical film about the deposed president "subject to changes" and only after the Sandiganbayan has decided on the charges of plunder and perjury against him.

Rodriguez said the approval was "illusory," but the truth is that Malacañang is still afraid of showing the biofilm "Ang Mabuhay Para sa Masa" (To Live for the Masses).

He said MTRCB’s condition for lifting the ban means that it will not be shown in the immediate future. By not allowing the film to be shown, Estrada is being denied his constitutional right of free speech.

Estrada’s lawyers, he added, will ask the high court within days to issue a writ of mandamus to compel the MTRCB to allow the showing of the film.

"We will ask the Supreme Court to compel the MTRCB to allow the showing of the film. The MTRCB has exercised an abuse of discretion by not allowing the showing of the film," said Rodriguez. — With Mike Frialde, Jess Diaz

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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