Estrada seeks permission to have surgery in HK

Former Philippine president Joseph Estrada has asked an anti-graft court for permission to travel to Hong Kong for knee surgery.

The deposed leader, who is awaiting trial on charges of plunder, invoked 'humanitarian and compassionate grounds' in a petition asking he be allowed to fly to Hong Kong for the surgery, which is tentatively scheduled for late November.

Doctors said the film star-turned-politician suffers from arthritis and torn knee ligaments. He also has a cataract and cyst in his left eye and several slipped discs in his back. They fear his back ailment could worsen if his knee condition is not treated.

Estrada's lawyer, Rene Saguisag, filed a petition on Thursday seeking permission to allow Estrada to go under the knife of renowned Californian orthopaedic surgeon Christopher Mow at the Hong Kong Adventist Hospital. The total cost of the medical and doctor's fees would be about US$55,000, Dr Mow said in a letter attached to the petition.

Mr Saguisag told the court Estrada would be admitted to Hong Kong Adventist Hospital for 19 days from November 24, and that he would leave the Philippines on November 22 and return on December 15.

'He is anxious to have the long-delayed operation done, and would like certainly to be home at the start of the season of grace and goodwill,' the petition said.

Estrada, under house arrest at his country villa east of Manila on charges of plundering about US$80 million from state coffers, has difficulty walking and rarely appears in court for his trial.

He obtained permission to go to the United States last year for the surgery but a lack of a US visa scuppered the plan.

A spokesman for the Hong Kong Adventist Hospital yesterday confirmed that arrangements were being made to host the former statesman. 'Now that the family and his lawyers have filed the request with the court, we expect to sit down with the Hong Kong government, police and security bureau over the next few days to discuss things like his security arrangements,' he said.

Estrada is expected to travel with a security detail of at least four officers to ensure he returns to the Philippines to face trial.

The Adventist Hospital has an excellent reputation among the world's rich and powerful. Past patients include former United States president George Bush as well as other 'unnamed' regional leaders, said the spokesman.

He said a team of Hong Kong doctors would work closely with Dr Mow to prepare for the surgery, and the subsequent procedures, if the petition was approved.

Estrada, 67, was forced to step down when massive 'people power' street protests ended his term in office, after just 31 months, in January 2001.