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Philippine president pardons ousted nemesis

MANILA - President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo pardoned her ousted predecessor yesterday, a move that drew praise as a step toward political reconciliation and scorn as an opportunistic maneuver that endorses corruption.

Joseph Estrada has been a constant thorn in Arroyo's side since he was arrested shortly after being forced out by a "people power" revolt in January 2001. He was convicted last month on graft charges and sentenced to life in prison.

The pardon is seen as part of Arroyo's efforts to bury the hatchet with her nemesis as she faces renewed calls for her resignation and another impeachment complaint, her third so far, on allegations of bribery.

Arroyo cited her government's policy of releasing convicts who have reached age 70, Estrada's 6 1/2 years in detention, and his pledge not to seek any public office, according to a statement read on national television by Acting Executive Secretary Ignacio Bunye.

Bunye said the pardon would restore Estrada's civil and political rights. But a court ruling that forfeited Estrada's villa and more than $15.5 million in bank accounts he is believed to own would stand.

Estrada, 70, could be released as early as today. He had been allowed to be detained in his villa near Manila while appealing his Sept. 12 conviction for taking bribes and kickbacks.

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

The pardon, rumored even before Estrada's conviction, was immediately hailed and assailed.

Senate President Manuel Villar called the pardon "a great step towards reconciliation, which is vital to our country's unhindered passage to progress."

But state prosecutor Dennis Villa-Ignacio said it amounted to a license to break the law.

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