Ex-Philippine President Estrada walks free

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MANILA, Oct 26 (Reuters) Joseph Estrada, the jailed former leader of the Philippines, walked free today as President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo faced criticism for pardoning the playboy movie star.

Arroyo set aside her ousted predecessor's life sentence on Thursday, just six weeks after he was convicted on corruption charges, raising suspicion the clemency was designed to curry favour with the opposition amid mounting bribery scandals.

Estrada, 70, was set free from 6 { years house arrest at his country villa 50 km (30 miles) east of Manila after the anti-graft court that had convicted him signed off on a release order.

Television showed him smiling and shaking hands with a large group of friends and allies after he was formally set free. He then set off by road to Manila, where he has said he wants to be at the bedside of his ailing 102-year-old mother.

But there was considerable criticism of the pardon.

''We are disappointed, especially with the haste with which it was done. The timing is very suspect,'' said Albert Lim, executive director of the Makati Business Club, the Philippines' main commercial forum.

Arroyo, who was Estrada's vice-president and succeeded him after he was ousted in an army-backed revolt in 2001, is facing fresh controversy over accusations of government kickbacks in a 330 million dollars telecoms deal and allegations of cash handouts to allies.

But analysts say unless dramatic new evidence is unveiled, Arroyo's position is secure, saved by a middle-class fed up with political squabbling, no obvious candidate to replace her and record economic growth.

The criticism of her decision to release Estrada, famed for his ''midnight cabinet'' of drinking buddies and gamblers, is also not expected to bubble over into popular outrage.

''I don't think there is going to be a hell of a lot of popular fallout for her other than just giving more ammunition for the opposition to beat her up a little bit,'' said Tom Green, executive director of Pacific Strategic Assessments, a risk consultancy.

''All the polls say that people favour turning Estrada loose.'' OPPOSITION FIGUREHEAD Estrada has pledged not to seek public office, but the former movie star is still popular among poor voters who often refer to him by his nickname ''Erap'' and, as a figurehead for anti-Arroyo groups, could stir up trouble for the president.

''I reiterate my wish to spend the rest of my life as plain citizen Erap. However, this does not mean turning my back on my commitment to our people,'' Estrada said in a statement.

Financial markets shrugged off the damage to the Philippines' credibility from his impending release, with the stock market closing up 0.45 per cent and the peso ending at 44.06 against the dollar, compared with 44.04 on Thursday.

''It is the fundamentals that's been keeping the market up so I think that would continue to be the case,'' said Jose Vistan, of AB Capital Securities.

''If these (political scandals) would continue to drag on for an extended period of time, eventually it will have an impact on share prices but, as of now, the market is awash with so much liquidity, both local and foreign money.'' Three bishops have called for Arroyo's resignation and an online petition calling for her and vice-president Noli de Castro to stand down to allow a snap election has gathered 250 signatures since it went live five days ago.

Arroyo, who has survived two impeachment bids and at least two coup plots, has a track record of shrugging off challenges.

''No doubt my decision to grant executive clemency to former president Joseph Estrada will be debated, welcomed, criticised and given all sorts of meanings and motives,'' she told a business meeting.

''Former president Estrada is more than 70 years old. It is time to release him and time for him to be at the bedside of his dying mother.'' REUTERS SS MIR KP1616

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