Philippine Ex-President Estrada Freed
By PAUL ALEXANDER
MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Free for the first time in 6 1/2 years, ousted President Joseph Estrada thanked his successor for pardoning him and vowed Friday to stay out of "dirty politics" while dedicating the rest of his life to helping the poor.
The former action star's first hours of freedom played out live in national television like a scene from one of his old films, which won him legions of fans for his portrayals of underdog heroes.
Estrada's joyous release from house arrest was followed by a speech to thousands of cheering supporters in Manila's San Juan district, where he once served as mayor, then a bedside visit to his ailing 102-year-old mother and a dinner of his favorite foods. His wife said she was making rice cake and paella.
The question is: Will the man who won the biggest election landslide in Philippine history be able to avoid the temptation of being drafted back into politics by a disjointed opposition desperate for someone popular to rally around?
For a day at least, Estrada was happy to bask in adulation and follow the lead of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who has shrugged off allegations of political opportunism and touted the pardon as a move toward reconciliation that was in the public's best interests.
"There is no substitute for freedom," the 70-year-old Estrada said before leaving his villa east of Manila, where he has spent most of his time in detention since his arrest three months after being forced out by the country's second "people power" revolt in January 2001.
Estrada was convicted last month on graft charges and given a life sentence. Arroyo pardoned him Thursday.
The pardon was greeted with a heavy dose of cynicism because of the timing — Arroyo is fighting a third impeachment attempt and calls for her resignation. State prosecutor Dennis Villa-Ignacio said the pardon, especially so soon after the hard-fought conviction, amounted to a license to break the law.
Estrada, who has been one of Arroyo's chief critics over the past six years, sounded conciliatory for the first time since his ouster.
He thanked Arroyo, reiterated his wish to live the life of a "plain citizen" and, in a turnaround from previous attacks on the administration, urged his supporters to back Arroyo's programs to combat poverty and hunger.
"I am aware of the agonizing times and tough choices that Mrs. Arroyo has had to wade through before arriving at this executive decision," Estrada said.
Arroyo admitted that her decision was controversial, but said the pardon was aimed at ending "the single most significant cause of political noise and controversy" during her tumultuous time in office. She cited the pardons of former U.S. and South Korean presidents as precedents.
"In the end, we had to make a decision that was bound to please and displease, impress and confound, unite and divide," Arroyo said in a speech to businessmen.
Arroyo's spokesman, Ignacio Bunye, said the pardon restored Estrada's civil and political rights. However, a court ruling that confiscated Estrada's villa and more than $15.5 million in savings remained in effect.
More than 2,000 supporters, family and friends prepared a fiesta for Estrada's homecoming. Balloons and ribbons in orange — Estrada's campaign color — festooned the route of his lengthy motorcade, and he was mobbed as he got out of his vehicle.
While he admitted he made mistakes in office, Estrada denied corruption was among them. He claimed he twice turned down offers that he could avoid being charged if he left the country. Despite his conviction in court, he said he felt he had been acquitted by public opinion.
"I have no plan to rejoin dirty politics," he told the crowd chanting his name. "My remaining time will be offered in the service of our people."
Associated Press writers Oliver Teves, Teresa Cerojano, Jim Gomez and Hrvoje Hranjski contributed to this report.