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Friday, February 5, 1999 Published at 05:51 GMT

World: Asia-Pacific

Countdown to Philippines execution

Echegaray is led out to the Death Chamber

Prison officials in the Philippines are preparing for the country's first execution in more than two decades.

Simon Ingram reports from the prison: "So far the atmosphere is calm"
Convicted rapist Leo Echegaray has been transported to the death chamber at the Manila prison where he is due to be given a lethal injection at 1500 local time (0700 GMT) on Friday.

The Philippines Supreme Court rejected a last-minute appeal to halt the execution and said he would be put to death as scheduled.

Echegaray, a 38-year-old house painter, was taken from the main block of the New Bilibid Prison at dawn and driven to an adjacent execution chamber in full view of a media throng.

Security was tight around the prison in the Manila suburb of Muntinlupa. Nearby schools were closed and barbed wire barricades erected at the prison gates to hold back large numbers of reporters and both pro and anti-death penalty campaigners.

The condemned man will remain in a holding cell where he will eat his last meal and meet relatives and friends for the last time before being put to death.

[ image: Campaigners urged the president to reconsider the death penalty]
Campaigners urged the president to reconsider the death penalty
This will be the first execution in the Philippines since 1976. But since capital punishment was restored in January 1994 in response to soaring crime, more than 900 other people have also been sentenced to death.

Accompanied by a priest and surrounded by prison guards holding his arms, Echegaray wore a button on his chest reading "Execute justice not people," and carried a Bible.

He wore an orange wristband marked with the word "Erap" - a nickname for President Joseph Estrada, who has refused to reconsider his case.

No pardon

John McLean reports: Most Filipinos are determined that Echegary be put to death
The Philippine president is the one person who can now grant Echegaray a last minute reprieve, but on Thursday he ordered the telephone hotline between the presidential palace and the prison to be cut, saying he had no intention of granting clemency.

But Zinaida Javier, who Echegaray married in prison last December, maintained her husband was innocent of the crime for which he was convicted in 1994 - repeatedly raping his 11-year-old step-daughter by a previous wife.

[ image: Echegaray's wife Zinaida prays in front of Death Chamber]
Echegaray's wife Zinaida prays in front of Death Chamber
"He still insists up to now that he is innocent and when I spoke with him yesterday he was still asking for a review of his case," she told reporters before going to meet her husband for the last time.

The Philippines abolished capital punishment in 1987 but restored it in 1994 for "heinous" crimes such as rape, drug-trafficking, murder and kidnapping.

The planned execution has prompted a fierce debate in the Philippines. The powerful Roman Catholic church is strongly opposed, but correspondents say most Filipinos believe it will reduce the soaring crime rate.

Appeals rejected

The Vatican, human rights group Amnesty International, the European Union and Canada have all appealed to President Estrada to halt the execution and abolish the death penalty - requests which he has denied.

Echegaray was to have been executed on 4 January but the Supreme Court ordered a last-minute delay to allow congress to review the death penalty legislation. However legislators voted not to undertake a review and the court ordered the execution to proceed.

The condemned man will be taken to the deathbed and strapped down shortly before 0700 GMT, officials said. He will be asked for his last words before three injections are administered - one to calm his body, the second to put him to sleep and the third to stop his heart.

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