Philippine President Gloria Arroyo's decision to commute the death sentence for more than 1,000 convicts has been condemned by victim support groups.
Inmates are rejoicing at the news, say prison officials
President Arroyo's Easter announcement has been welcomed by the Roman Catholic Church and death penalty opponents.
But anti-crime groups fear it will simply embolden criminals, amid a recent resurgence in kidnappings.
Mrs Arroyo's move could spare the lives of 1,200 inmates on death row, which include at least 11 Islamic militants.
The president did not say, however, whether she would move to legally abolish the death penalty, which must be approved by Congress.
"Regarding those who [currently] face the death penalty, I announce that we are changing that punishment and will make [the maximum penalty] life imprisonment," the president said in her Easter message.
Her spokesman, Ignacio Bunye, later said she had made the decision after "deep contemplation and reflection in the field of Christian values".
She "believes that learning to forgive without compromising criminal justice would be a good start for the nation to move on," he explained.
Prison chaplain Monsignor Robert Olaguer said the inmates were rejoicing at the news. "They're thankful to the president because they'll have a longer life," he said.
'Tooth for a tooth'
But Teresita Ang-See, of the anti-crime Movement for Restoration of Peace and Order, said kidnap victims in particular were "dismayed" and "shocked" by the announcement.
"It's the height of insensitivity and callousness," she said, pointing out that a group of Chinese traders, a prime target for kidnappings, had recently appealed for convicted kidnappers to be executed so that an example could be set.
Mrs Arroyo did not say if she sought to abolish the death penalty
Dante Jimenez, of the Volunteers Against Crime and Corruption, said he had received calls from two victims' families who warned they would take matters into their own hands to ensure the killers of their loved ones met a similar fate.
"It will become a tooth for a tooth," he said. "It's saddening if victims will be victimised again because of this sweeping... commutations."
Mrs Arroyo lifted a moratorium on the death penalty in 2003 following the spate of kidnappings.
However, no executions in this predominantly Catholic country have been carried out since 2000.