[PHOTO AT LEFT - President Arroyo picks up copies of a script during the televised Pulong Bayan at Malacañang yesterday.]

MANILA, SEPTEMBER 4, 2007 (STAR) By Marvin Sy - National Security Adviser Norberto Gonzales admitted yesterday that he met with deposed President Joseph Estrada at his Tanay, Rizal resthouse and discussed the possibility of presidential pardon if Estrada is convicted of plunder.

Saying that the two of them were friends, Gonzales said the former president asked him last week for a meeting over lunch.

Interviewed by ANC yesterday, Estrada, however, said it was Gonzales who called him up to set the meeting.

Meanwhile, Interior Secretary Ronaldo Puno, in an interview at Malacañang, also hinted of a possible pardon for Estrada.

“That has obviously been discussed a lot but let’s wait to see what the decision will be because we can’t talk about pardon until there is a verdict,” Puno said.

“But I think it’s no secret that the President right now is seeking greater national reconciliation so the more we are able to bring everybody together the better for everybody,” he added.

Gonzales was quick to clarify that President Arroyo was not aware of his visit and that he was not there to negotiate for the government.

His visit comes at a time when the Sandiganbayan is about to hand down its verdict on the plunder case against Estrada.

“I’m not negotiating on anything for government,” Gonzales said.

He did admit, however, that the issue of amnesty came up but this was not discussed extensively.

Gonzales said that Estrada asked him about his case, to which he replied that it is all up to the Sandiganbayan.

If ever the former president is convicted, Gonzales said that the issue of amnesty may be discussed.

Gonzales said that he advised Estrada to stay away from destabilization plots that seem to be surfacing with the forthcoming verdict on his case.

“I think in the final analysis, whether he is acquitted or convicted, actually his actions after the fact, will be the basis of judgment by the people. It would be up to him if he wants to initiate trouble or to help the government in its programs,” Gonzales said.

He said that he has visited the former president a number of times and that the two of them became friends after he facilitated the trip of Estrada to Hong Kong to undergo knee surgery.

“I have always enjoyed talking to him, he enjoys talking to me and we don’t have commitments. We just have a sharing of views,” he said.

Estrada confirmed that the two discussed various issues including his case.

“I told him if the decision will be based on the merits of the case I’m sure I will be acquitted. In fairness to him, he said he has nothing to do with that. It’s for the courts to decide,” Estrada said.

The former president has been quoted as saying that he would reject any offer of pardon from the government if he convicted.

However, in the interview, he said that a conviction is not something that he is considering.

Unlucky 13 for Erap

The Sandiganbayan is rushing to meet the Sept. 13 deadline for the verdict on the plunder and perjury cases of former President Estrada.

The 90-day period would fall on Sept. 13, and not Sept. 15, as earlier reported, said lawyer Renato Bocar, executive clerk of court and spokesman for the Sandiganbayan, during an interview at the anti-graft court yesterday.

Coincidentally, 13 is an unlucky number for Estrada, who is said to be superstitious.

Bocar said that according to the Constitution, all courts are required to resolve all cases within a 90-day period after the last day of trial.

The cases of Estrada were deemed submitted for decision on June 15, 2007 and the verdict expected to be handed down on Sept. 13, 2007.

If the court needs to extend, the judge or magistrate must ask permission from the Supreme Court by submitting a written explanation why it needs more time.

The explanation is to be submitted to the Supreme Court and all the parties before the High Court grant an extension, Bocar said.

Bocar also said the judge’s or justice’s attention may be called if no explanation is submitted for the delay of decision.

On the other hand, Bocar said Sandiganbayan Sheriff Eduardo Urietta had proposed that all cameras, both for stills and video, be banned inside the building during the handing down of the verdict on Estrada.

All other communication equipment such as audio recorders and cellular phones will be banned inside the courtroom, said Bocar.

On the other hand, Urietta said he already gave instructions that all bags be inspected upon entry to the Sandiganbayan building in Quezon City on that day.

Bocar cited a past incident at the Sandiganbayan where a female television reporter was able to take “live video” footage of Estrada inside the courtroom using her 3-G cellular phone.

Courts in the Philippines have always banned live video or audio coverage of court proceedings.

Bocar said cameras would have to be set up outside the building, probably near the lobby or gate.

He said a room, possibly in the legal division of the Sandiganbayan, would be set up for reporters who would not be able to enter the courtroom of the Special Division.

Speakers would be set up inside the media room where reporters would be able to listen to the court proceedings. Audio recording might be allowed.

However, live audio feed would be banned during the court proceedings.

Seats inside the courtroom would be on a first come, first served basis, said Bocar.

Meanwhile, Cagayan Rep. Rufus Rodriguez, spokesman for Estrada, warned yesterday that if the people are not satisfied with the decision of the Sandiganbayan, it is their right to voice out their opinion.

“If people are not satisfied with the decision, it is their right to come out and voice out their opinion as long as it is done peacefully,” said Rodriguez, quoting Estrada, in an interview with reporters.

Rodriguez also described the deployment of 6,000 policemen and military personnel during the promulgation as “overkill.”

“That (deployment) has a chilling effect. It tends to scare the people from going out and that would be a violation of their constitutional right to freedom of expression,” said Rodriguez.

SWS survey is self-serving

Meanwhile, a neophyte lawmaker said yesterday that the opposition-commissioned survey regarding the fate of detained President Estrada only shows that the political opposition is “deathly afraid” of the disgraced leader’s imminent conviction on plunder charges.

“It doesn’t need a genius to see the motive. It is laced with malice and undoubtedly part of the opposition’s black propaganda in connection to Erap’s judgment day,” Bohol Rep. Adam Relson Jala said.

The congressman from the administration coalition said the Social Weather Stations (SWS) survey that reported, “seven of 10 Filipinos believe President Arroyo is corrupt while 66 percent say Erap is not corrupt is so self serving.”

“The opposition paid for the July survey of the SWS and now releasing its results on a weekly basis to gather momentum in time for the D-Day of release of the Sandiganbayan’s verdict,” Jala said.

The legislator said the move was aimed at nothing but “damage control efforts to preempt a guilty verdict” by “trying to fuel unrest again by conditioning the mind of the public prior to the court’s ruling.”

“Obviously, the opposition is laying the basis for the public not to respect the court’s decision and revive the question on GMA’s presidency,” said Jala. “All the black propaganda against the President should now stop.”

“President Arroyo is just a victim of what she herself calls titans of hate. The legitimacy issue of her presidency has long been settled and sealed by the Supreme Court,” he said in a statement.

“The Erap case, whether he gets acquitted or convicted, will not reverse the SC decision that he resigned and GMA is the legitimate successor,” said Jala, who urged the people to “reject this smear campaign of the opposition.”

Piecemeal survey by SWS

In another survey by the SWS commissioned by the United Opposition, 65 percent of Filipinos in Mega Manila were “doubtful” or “undecided” on the impartiality of the Sandiganbayan to render a fair decision on the plunder case of former president Estrada.

The survey conducted among 600 respondents in Metro Manila, Bulacan, Rizal, Cavite and Laguna, showed that 34 percent of them had “much trust” in the Sandiganbayan to make a fair decision.

The SWS survey fielded over July 18 to 20 by UNO is aimed at gauging public opinion on the coming Estrada verdict.

Twenty-six percent of the respondents said they had “little trust” while 39 percent refused to answer the question, indicating they were undecided on the impartiality of the anti-graft court, UNO said in a statement.

“In the event the Sandiganbayan hands down a guilty verdict, Senate president pro tempore Jinggoy Estrada said his father would appeal his case before the Supreme Court, adding they were confident he would get a fair trial from the high tribunal as it has proven its independence from Malacañang in the past,” UNO said.

UNO said the survey was part of their continuing program to gauge public opinion.

No ‘overkill’ for AFP

In another development, National Capital Region Command chief Maj. Gen. Ben Dolorfino yesterday justified the large number of troops the unit prepared in time for the handing down of the verdict on the plunder case against Estrada.

In a phone interview, Dolorfino, who is also the new Marine commandant, said the anticipated deployment of about 2,000 troops under the NCRCOM is not “overkill” as alleged by the deposed president.

“It’s not overkill because it is not only the promulgation that we are anticipating. We are also preparing for other possible contingencies,” he said.

Dolorfino said they are also preparing for other scenarios such as destabilization, civil disturbance and even terror threats and calamities.

“In our updated contingency plan all contingencies, destabilization, civil disturbances, terrorism, and even calamities are included,” he said.

“The primary consideration here is to contain peace and order and the stability of NCR, so if it is the interest of the people that is at stake, I believe that it pays to overreact, if they think that the AFP is overreacting,” he stressed.

He said the 2,000 government troops prepared for these contingencies were only those that have been assigned to the NCRCOM. He said no other units would augment the NCRCOM troops.

He said that during the promulgation of the verdict, two civil disturbance management companies would be deployed in the vicinity of the Sandiganbayan, then another two at Malacañang.

He said this is roughly the same number of forces the NCRCOM deployed during the State of the Nation Address of President Arroyo last July.

Dolorfino added that these forces would play a supporting role to the AFP.

He also said that the rest of the 2,000 soldiers would remain in their camp but on standby for deployment should the peace and order situation deteriorate.

He emphasized, however, that their CDM units would not prevent protest rallies as long as the necessary permits are secured.

Villar wants Erap acquitted

In an ironic twist, Senate President Manuel Villar Jr. pushed yesterday for the acquittal of Estrada after Manila Archbishop Gaudencio Rosales called on the people to respect the verdict of the Sandiganbayan.

“I don’t know if I am allowed to say my opinion. I don’t want to preempt the Sandiganbayan but I am among the many who hope that President Estrada will be acquitted,” said Villar, who reconciled with the former president months prior to the May 11 elections this year.

Villar, who practically sealed the Estrada impeachment when he was Speaker, said he also respects the opinion of Rosales who appealed the other day for the public to respect whatever ruling the anti-graft court hands down.

“We respect all statements and all opinions of the people here. Of course, we all have differences in opinion,” Villar said.

If Estrada gets a conviction, Villar is supporting moves to get amnesty or pardon for the former president.

In the end, Villar said it is up to the former leader, who was ousted by people power in 2001, to decide on what he wants.

“I am open to all options available for him. President Estrada has been incarcerated for a long time and that is not right. But we have to respect his decision and what he wants… It is his life at stake here,” Villar said.

Some of Estrada’s close friends and colleagues were reportedly trying to work out an option in case Estrada gets a conviction. One of the possible options is to seek amnesty, which Estrada had reportedly repeatedly rejected.

Estrada has been in detention for five years and six months.

Sen. Loren Legarda, who ran under the opposition banner in the last May 14 elections, echoed the opposition’s call for Estrada’s acquittal. “And we are praying for a fair and just decision. Hopefully those who are close to the President and those who consider him dear to us, would always pray for peace in the latter part of his life,” said Legarda, who broke down in tears at the height of the Estrada impeachment trial.

She cried after Estrada’s allies blocked the prosecution’s move to open the second envelope that supposedly contained documents pertaining to the real owner of the Jose Velarde accounts.

“At the same time, let us pray for an acquittal. As a friend, I pray for his peace of mind and better health. As part of his political family, as members of the opposition, we are praying for his acquittal,” she added.

Legarda welcomed results of latest survey wherein a majority of respondents indicated their belief that Estrada is innocent of plunder. – Sandy Araneta, Delon Porcalla, Helen Flores, James Mananghaya, Christina Mendez

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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