Tuesday, July 6, 1999 Published at 13:29 GMT 14:29 UK
Death row reprieve for poor
Gurads relax outside Manila's lethal injection chamber
By the BBC's John McLean in Manila
The President of the Philippines, Joseph Estrada, has announced that convicts on death row may be spared if poverty was a motivating factor in their crimes.
The announcement should clear up some of the confusion that has troubled the Philippines' experiment in restoring capital punishment for crimes such as murder, rape and drug trafficking.
The president's adoption of poverty as a mitigating factor in clemency decisions is intended to preserve his public image as champion of the disadvantaged.
One of the main arguments put forward by opponents of capital punishment is that most of the more than 1,000 prisoners on death row are there because they are poor.
Opponents say the prisoners could not afford competent lawyers who might have helped them avoid the death sentence.
But Mr Estrada's announcement should also address the problem of apparent inconsistency in the use of presidential power to grant reprieves or pardons, or to commute death sentences to life imprisonment.
This resulted in a fiasco last month when a convicted rapist was executed by lethal injection despite having been granted a presidential reprieve.
On the morning of the execution the president said he was adamant the condemned man should die.
Minutes before the sentence was carried out Mr Estrada changed his mind but could not get through to the lethal injection chamber on the telephone, so the convict was executed anyway.
The incident re-opened the public debate in the Philippines about the death penalty.
That debate appeared to have been closed last February when the Philippines carried out its first execution since capital punishment was restored in 1994.
The death penalty was originally abolished after the overthrow of President Ferdinand Marcos in 1986.
The first execution took place without a hitch. Mr Estrada refused to show mercy to the condemned man, another rapist, and there was overwhelming public support for the president's tough stance on crime attitude.
Opponents of capital punishment, led by the normally influential Roman Catholic Church, appeared to have lost the public debate.
But since then 11 executions have been scheduled and the president has granted a reprieve in every case for reasons that were not always clear.
On at least two occasions reprieves were granted in response to last-minute appeals by a Catholic bishop.
This has undermined Mr Estrada's image as a crimefighter.
But he also likes to portray himself as an ordinary human being. "A life is at stake so I want to double check," he has said.