MANILA, September 21, 2005
 (STAR) By Mike Frialde - From detention to house arrest to… city arrest?

Government prosecutors opposed a "city arrest" for deposed President Joseph Estrada, saying there is no legal basis for it.

"If they can show me any procedure or law on it, I will not object. There is no legal and factual basis for it. What do they mean by city arrest?" Special Prosecutor Dennis Villa-Ignacio asked the Sandiganbayan yesterday.

A "city arrest" for the 68-year-old Estrada was earlier suggested by his lawyers should the three-member special division of the Sandiganbayan decide against his petition for bail.

Lawyers for Estrada, led by former senator Rene Saguisag, have been trying to convince the Sandiganbayan to grant their petition so that he could move around and contact witnesses for his defense.

At last Monday’s hearing, Saguisag had also asked that the hearings be held only once a week instead of twice weekly. Hearings are currently held Mondays and Wednesdays.

This would allow lawyers to better prepare the former president’s defense as well as attend to other cases, Saguisag said.

Estrada is currently on "resthouse arrest" at his 18-hectare estate in Tanay, Rizal just across the Army’s Camp Capinpin where he was previously detained.

The former president faces plunder charges following his ouster in the so-called "EDSA II" popular protest in 2001.

Estrada lawyers said the proposed "city arrest" would be similar to the type granted in 2000 to former Indonesian dictator Suharto, whose movements were restricted to Jakarta.

Under the proposed arrangement, Estrada would be taken from his Tanay resthouse and be allowed to stay within the municipal limits of San Juan, where his son Jose Victor "JV" Ejercito is mayor.

Meanwhile, the defense lawyers again tried last Monday to convince the court to grant his bail petition.

Saguisag cited the 1948 case of Fernando Alano, who was allowed by the Supreme Court to post bail despite facing a case of rebellion complexed with murder, arson and robbery and being sentenced to life imprisonment.

In addition, Alano also escaped from a national penitentiary to look for witnesses in his defense. He later surrendered to authorities after locating his witnesses and was allowed to post bail.

Saguisag said that the same consideration could also be given to the former president who, like Alano, has been detained for years in a protracted trial.

He said Estrada could use his temporary liberty to contact his witnesses who may find it difficult to go to his Tanay estate given the security restrictions.

"Some witnesses we could not (get to) agree to testify and who are reluctant to go to Tanay, where they may not be allowed to go anyway, may be persuaded outside," Saguisag said.

The court earlier said it needed more time to study the government lawyers’ opposition to Estrada’s bail petition before it issues a ruling.

Villa-Ignacio earlier said that the government was not opposed to Estrada taking the witness stand as long as he would testify only on the main charges he is facing and not simply argue for his bail petition on the grounds that he is not a flight risk.

"The matter of flight risk is a state of mind. He can always change it. How can the court say that he has no plans of fleeing the country when he is facing a lethal injection case? The accused will always entertain flight. No one in his right mind will not think that," he said.

In July 2004, the anti-graft court granted an Estrada petition for a "resthouse arrest" at his resthouse.

In 2003, the Sandiganbayan granted bail to Estrada’s son, Jinggoy, after the court deemed that the prosecution had failed to clearly establish the younger Estrada’s involvement in his father’s alleged illegal gambling protection racket.

Estrada was ousted in 2001 following accusations of massive corruption.

He was accused of running an illegal gambling protection racket and amassing millions of pesos in bribes from jueteng operators. He also allegedly misused government funds intended for tobacco farmers during his aborted 31-month presidency.

Last December, Estrada was allowed by the court to leave for Hong Kong to undergo knee surgery.

The court ruling drew flak and suspicion from critics that the former president had cut a deal with the Arroyo administration.

The prosecution opposed Estrada’s requests for furloughs in the past, arguing that he was in effect being accorded special treatment even though the plunder charges against him did not entitle him to post bail.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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