MANILA, SEPTEMBER 24, 2007 (STAR) President Arroyo has approved negotiations on a possible pardon for former President Joseph Estrada, who was recently sentenced to life imprisonment for plunder, her legal adviser said yesterday.

Mrs. Arroyo was open to granting an unconditional pardon depending on the result of talks between Interior Secretary Ronaldo Puno and Estrada, who is being held in his sprawling countryside villa near Manila, Chief Presidential Legal Counsel Sergio Apostol said.

“Hopefully, if this pardon is granted, it will remove one cause of political tensions,” Apostol told The Associated Press by telephone.

Estrada said he was open to such talks, and if the terms of a pardon were acceptable he may decide not to pursue plans for an appeal against his Sept. 12 conviction for plunder by the Sandiganbayan.

“If there is an assurance of an absolute pardon, which would not amount to an admission of guilt, I’m open to withdrawing any motion for reconsideration,” Estrada told the AP by telephone from his villa.

Estrada said he was ready to discuss a pardon with Puno, who would visit him on Wednesday.

The developments have sparked hopes that the long enmity between Arroyo and Estrada - which has caused political crises and frequent coup rumors - could finally ease.

Apostol said a legal study he undertook showed Estrada could be granted a presidential pardon but not an amnesty, which usually covers insurgents and political offenders. An amnesty program also takes time to enforce because it has to be ratified by Congress, he said.

Estrada was convicted after a landmark six-year trial on charges that he took bribes and kickbacks while in office. His conviction on plunder carried the death penalty, but capital punishment has been abolished in the Philippines.

He was acquitted of perjury related to allegations he falsely declared his assets. He also was ordered to forfeit a mansion and more than US$15.5 million (euro11 million).

Estrada has denied the charges and accused Arroyo of masterminding his removal in a conspiracy with leaders of the Roman Catholic church and senior military officers.

Regaining freedom has become more urgent for Estrada because of his mother’s deteriorating health.

Estrada said his 102-year-old mother has been confined to a hospital for the last two months due to a variety of illnesses.

“I’m really worried. I want to be by her bedside,” Estrada said.

Estrada, a former action film star who once pulled off the biggest election victory in Philippine history, remains popular among impoverished Filipinos who adored his B-movies where he often portrayed roles as a champion of the poor. – AP

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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