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Monday, January 4, 1999 Published at 15:48 GMT

World: Asia-Pacific

Philippines stay of execution welcomed

The convict's new wife, Zenaida Echegaray

Opponents of the death penalty in the Philippines have been celebrating the Supreme Court's decision to block the country's first execution for more than 20 years.

The BBC's John McLean in Manila: Hopes have been raised for 800 death-row inmates
The reprieve for convicted child rapist Leo Echegaray came with only hours to go. He was already in a holding cell next to the chamber - where he was due to be put to death by lethal injection - when the court ordered all executions to be delayed until after 15 June.

The decision was made on the grounds that the country's lawmakers were reconsidering the wisdom of capital punishment.

[ image: Leo Echegaray: Execution suspended for six months]
Leo Echegaray: Execution suspended for six months
About 100 opponents of the execution who had been staging a vigil at the New Bilibid Prison in southern Manila broke into applause when they heard of the reprieve. Some shouted: "Praise the Lord!"

Echegaray's lawyer called the stay of execution a significant first step to abolishing capital punishment in the Philippines.

But President Joseph Estrada, who had earlier rejected appeals for clemency, criticised the ruling. He said he would veto any move to repeal the death penalty.

Mr Estrada, who took office in June, promised to make law and order a cornerstone of his administration and vowed to wipe out crime in six months.

Echegaray, a 38-year-old house painter, had been sentenced to death for repeatedly raping his stepdaughter.

He had ordered his last meal of sardines and dried fish. When the reprieve was announced, he shared the food with relatives who had gathered at the prison.

Congress 'reconsidering death penalty'

The death penalty was re-introduced in the Philippines five years ago for murder, rape, kidnapping and drug trafficking in response to a rising tide of violent crime.

Rory Mungovern of Amnesty International: 'The Philippines is running against the world tide'
Since then, more than 800 people have been sentenced to death.

Capital punishment had been abolished in 1987 after the overthrow of President Ferdinand Marcos.

[ image: Th van carrying Echegaray left for the death chamber at dawn]
Th van carrying Echegaray left for the death chamber at dawn
The Philippines is one of only a handful of countries to have abolished and then restored the death penalty.

The Supreme Court ruling said: "There are signs that the legislative department is re-thinking the wisdom of imposing the death penalty in circumstances such as those obtaining in this case.

"Congress should therefore be given a reasonable chance to examine the law."

Victim wanted execution

Echegaray's stepdaughter, who was 10 when she was raped, told a radio station on Sunday: "I want him to die."

[ image: President Estrada: Rejected appeals to commute sentence]
President Estrada: Rejected appeals to commute sentence
The girl, now 15, visited President Estrada and pleaded with him not to pardon Echegaray.

"I felt nothing but compassion for her," Mr Estrada said. "You can just imagine if she were your daughter."

Echegaray's lawyer, Theodore Te, who belongs to a human rights group opposed to capital punishment, said he would now lobby congressmen to abolish the death penalty.

The Roman Catholic Church, the dominant religious group in the Philippines, has been vocal in its opposition to the death penalty.

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