MANILA (Reuters) - Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo pardoned former president Joseph Estrada on Thursday, setting aside his conviction and life sentence on charges of plunder.
Critics said Arroyo had rushed through the pardon just six weeks after Estrada's conviction to curry favour with the opposition and to deflect mounting charges of corruption within her own administration.
"I hereby grant executive clemency to Joseph Ejercito Estrada," chief presidential spokesman Ignacio Bunye said on television, quoting Arroyo's order. "He is hereby restored to his civil and political rights."
Estrada, 70, has been under house arrest since he was ousted as president in 2001 and Arroyo, his then vice-president, took his place. An anti-graft court jailed him for life in September but allowed him to remain under house arrest pending an appeal.
Officials said Estrada, a former movie star with a strong following among poorer Filipinos, would be freed on Friday morning, after the court had received a copy of the presidential order.
"I would like to thank this administration, specifically President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, for granting this pardon," Estrada's son, Senator Jinggoy Estrada, said on television. "This is coming from my heart."
He however brushed aside suggestions that the pardon implied that the opposition would go slow in pursuing accusations of bribery and kickbacks in Arroyo's administration.
"As a senator I will continue to do my duty," he said. "If there are anomalies in this government, I will continue to expose it."
One of the most colourful characters in the rambunctious world of Philippine politics, Estrada's term in office was marked by reports of policy decisions taken after late-night drinking bouts, millions of pesos won or lost in gambling sessions and innumerable tales of mistresses and their lavish lifestyles.
The reports horrified the middle class and the powerful Catholic Church, but Estrada's long career as a matinee idol playing Robin Hood-style heroes and his down-to-earth manner continue to endear him to poor voters.
The anti-graft court convicted him of receiving funds from illegal gambling and taking commissions from the sale of shares to government pension funds.
Bunye said Estrada's age, the fact that he had been in custody for over six years and his commitment not to seek public office weighed in favour of the pardon. However, all illicitly amassed wealth seized from him would be retained, he said.
State prosecutors who had helped convict Estrada were scathing in their criticism.
"A grant of pardon to Mr Estrada totally demeans the prosecutorial efforts to combat graft and corruption," said Dennis Villa-Ignacio, the lead prosecutor.
"This means that public servants, especially the highest officials of the land, can sit without accountability."
Other prosecutors said in a statement that Arroyo's decision was a betrayal.
"The incumbent president has no right to pardon a person who claims that he was unjustly treated by the criminal justice system and that his rights to due process were denied," they said.
"It would be the height of disloyalty and betrayal of the public trust for an incumbent president to trivialise the extraordinary act of pardon for the sake of political expediency."
Arroyo's critics said the pardon would lead more people to join calls for her to resign.
"She did this for her own political survival, not for the interest of the nation," said Catholic priest Joe Dizon, a vocal critic of Arroyo. "She can no longer govern effectively. All her actions are for political survival."
The Senate is inquiring into allegations of government kickbacks in a $330 million (161 million pound) telecoms deal. The names of both Arroyo and her husband have figured in the inquiry.
Newspapers have also said lawmakers and other senior elected officials loyal to Arroyo each received 200,000-500,000 pesos (2,200-5,500 pounds) after meeting the president earlier this month.