MANILA, Philippines (AP) — The Philippine president defended his decision not to appoint award-winning actress Nora Aunor as a national artist, saying Tuesday that doing so would have sent the message that illegal drugs are acceptable.
President Benigno Aquino III told reporters he decided to exclude the actress, who rose from rags to stardom, from this year's list of national artist appointees because of a previous drug conviction — which Aunor's lawyer disputed.
Aunor was arrested in 2005 at the Los Angeles airport for a drug-related offense and later agreed to a plea deal that required her entering a drug-diversion program in order for the charges to be dropped. Her lawyer said she successfully completed the program.
Aquino's explanation came a week after a controversy broke out over the decision, with several national artists and members of a committee that vets nominees expressing outrage. Some called for protests and for a review of the selection process.
"The National Artist honor is given because we want to say this person contributed a lot to the Filipino race and should be emulated," Aquino said. "But my problem with that is ... Ms. Nora Aunor was convicted for drugs."
He said he respects Aunor's contributions to the film industry but does not "want to send a message that sometimes illegal drugs are acceptable; the message should be it is always bad and illegal."
Aunor's lawyer, Claire Navarro Espina, said the actress, who was living in the United States when arrested, was never convicted and the case was later dismissed. She said a bag in Aunor's name which the actress did not pack was found to have a glass pipe that showed traces of methamphetamine. The actress was traveling with four assistants at the time.
The case was dismissed in 2007 after Aunor satisfied the terms of California's drug diversion program and all her random drug tests were negative, Espina added. The diversion program provides education and treatment instead of jail time and a criminal record for alleged drug users.
Aunor was quoted by the Philippine Daily Inquirer as saying she was "hurt" by the turn of events, but the outpouring of support for her more than made up for the disappointment. The newspaper featured a picture of her wearing a t-shirt with the print "Proud to be a Filipino. Ashamed of my government."
Aunor, 61, was born Nora Cabaltera Villamayor to an impoverished family in eastern Camarines Sur province and used to sell water in the train station in her hometown. She later won singing contests and began a movie career in the 1960s, winning dozens of best actress awards.
She has made nearly 200 movies, including many considered to be classics in Philippine cinema.