[PHOTO AT LEFT - Photo dated May 3, 2001 shows President Arroyo shaking hands with detained former President Joseph Estrada at Fort Sto. Domingo in Sta. Rosa, Laguna.]

MANILA, OCTOBER 26, 2007 (STAR) By Marichu Villanueva - Former President Joseph Estrada, who was ousted in a people power revolt in 2001 and was subsequently tried and convicted on charges of corruption, accepted yesterday the full pardon granted by President Arroyo.

Estrada told The STAR he “had no choice” but to ask for pardon as he reiterated his frustration with the country’s justice system.

“But I thank God for enlightening the mind and conscience of Mrs. Arroyo in granting the pardon,” he said in a telephone call last night from his detention in Tanay.

Estrada also disclosed he will go an a series of speaking engagements across the country, the first of which will be held today at San Juan City Hall where he started his political career as a town mayor.

In announcing the pardon on nationwide television, Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye said Estrada was already 70 years old when he was convicted of plunder by the Sandiganbayan.

The government has a policy of granting pardon to convicts who are 70 years or older.

In granting the executive clemency, Mrs. Arroyo said Estrada’s political and civil rights are being restored, and that his bank accounts before he became president would not be touched.

However, all seizure orders by the anti-graft court on his properties would remain in effect, according to the pardon.

Estrada said a presidential pardon needs to be transmitted first to the Sandiganbayan before it becomes effective.

Once the anti-graft court approves, it would be enforced by the Philippine National Police (PNP), his custodians in Tanay to effect his release, he added.

Estrada said yesterday he had enough of politics and would just like to care for his ailing mother, Mary Ejercito.

“I really do not have any intention to run in any election,” he said.

“All I want to do now is to be with my mother and take care of her perhaps in her last few days, or last few weeks or months of her life.”

However, Estrada jokingly said after Malacañang had announced his pardon: “I did not say that in writing,” referring to his reported vow not to seek public office again.

Calling up from his detention quarters, Estrada told The STAR yesterday he is retiring from politics after being in public service for almost 32 years – 17 years as San Juan mayor, six years as senator, six years as vice president and two and a half years as President of the Republic.

“We must put behind all these things that have been dividing our country when more than half of our people do not even eat three meals a day and many live in poverty,” he said.

Estrada said the first thing he will do after being pardoned is to pray at the chapel in his Tanay rest house before visiting his mother at the San Juan Medical Center and go home to Polk Street in Greenhills, San Juan.

“I would just be doing a Carter or a Nixon and run my own presidential library and museum,” he said, referring to the structures he put up in his rest house that had served as his detention quarters for the past two years.

Estrada said he is ready to accept the hands of reconciliation of Mrs. Arroyo and vowed to help move forward her administration’s battle against hunger and poverty.

“That’s why, I am ready to support her (President) programs to solve the problems of widespread hunger and poverty in most parts of our country,” he said.

Estrada has been in detention for six years and six months on charges of plunder after he was deposed by a military-backed civilian uprising on Jan. 20, 2001.

However, he maintains that the charges against him were all politically-motivated.

On Sept. 12, the special division of the Sandiganbayan convicted Estrada on two out of four counts of plunder.

Last Oct. 22, Estrada withdrew his motion for reconsideration from the Sandiganbayan, 20 days after it was filed by his lawyers. Subsequently, Estrada announced he is ready to consider a no-strings attached presidential pardon.

Before Estrada was pardoned yesterday, Senate President Manuel Villar Jr., Speaker Jose de Venecia Jr., and Archbishop of Cebu Ricardo Vidal wrote a letter to Mrs. Arroyo asking to grant Estrada pardon in the “spirit of national unity and reconciliation.”

Estrada expressed elation that the country’s third and fourth highest leaders, Villar and De Venecia, and a charismatic Catholic churchman like Cardinal Vidal showed their “concern” for his well-being and the national welfare in general.

“I am very thankful to the Senate president, the Speaker and Cardinal Vidal for their concern for me,” he said. “And I wholeheartedly agree with them that it’s time we move on as one nation.”

In their letter, Vidal, Villar and De Venecia downplayed the number of Filipinos who want Estrada to continue languishing in jail.

“With the multitude of others of like minds, we appeal and ask the President to extend full, free and absolute pardon to former President Joseph Estrada, and that he unconditionally accept this act of clemency from the President,” read the letter.

“What is astounding, and which compounds the problem, is that he continues to enjoy the affection of a great number of people. Strange as it may seem, their belief in his innocence of the offenses he is accused of does not appear to have been diminished by the Sandiganbayan’s decision. To add to his tragedy, his mother is critically ill.”

The three also reminded Mrs. Arroyo that “more can be accomplished” by her administration in improving the economy “if we could move the process of national reconciliation to achieve the unity of the nation vital to lifting our people from poverty and depression.”

Estrada also dismissed claims by staunch anti-Erap groups that any pardon would supposedly include the non-forfeiture of the so-called Boracay mansion in Quezon City and the P200 million of the Erap Muslim Youth Foundation.

“They can have it,” he said.

“I don’t own that ‘Boracay’ property. It’s owned by Jaime Dichaves. I have nothing to do with the P200 million in the Erap Muslim Foundation because it came from the jueteng money donated by Chavit.”

He was referring to former Ilocos Sur governor Luis “Chavit” Singson, the government’s star witness in the plunder case against him.

“It’s in their conscience if they want to deprive bright Muslim youths of scholarship opportunities. I’m not even a signatory to... checks in that foundation,” he said.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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