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Last Updated: Monday, 26 June 2006, 11:19 GMT 12:19 UK
Philippines' death penalty debate
By Sarah Toms
BBC News, Manila

President Arroyo signs law abolishing death penalty - 24/6/06
Mrs Arroyo may have an eye on her legacy
In the Philippines, Congress is notorious for taking months - if not years - to pass laws.

But earlier this month, both houses repealed the death penalty in quick time, leaving many analysts wondering why that bill got sudden priority while other items languish.

The move was welcomed by the influential Roman Catholic Church and human rights groups that had put pressure on President Gloria Arroyo and previous administrations to scrap capital punishment.

But others questioned what triggered the urgency to repeal a law that was rarely applied.

"The unusual speed in a legislature constantly bogged down in gridlock raised cynical suspicions that lawmakers are in dire need of the Catholic Church's approval and support. For what, the public can only hazard a guess," the Philippine Star newspaper said in an editorial.

Eight in 10 Filipinos are Catholic and the Church wields considerable power, having helped to topple two presidents - Ferdinand Marcos in 1986 and Joseph Estrada in 2001 - in popular revolts.

Mrs Arroyo, who survived an impeachment attempt last year, depends on the support of the Church as she fights persistent allegations she cheated in the 2004 election, after taking over from Mr Estrada in 2001.

But the Arroyo government has tested that support by pushing a revival of mining to bring in foreign investment, cut debt and reduce poverty. Some Catholic bishops oppose mining on environmental grounds.

This government is siding with criminals and not the victims
Dante Jimenez, Volunteers Against Crime and Corruption

"The abolition of the death penalty is one way of saying to the bishops I can't give you what you want over the mining but I can give you something else, quid pro quo," said political analyst Earl Perrano of the Institute of Political and Electoral Reforms.

"The Church will still campaign strongly to stop mining operations but with the repeal of the death penalty it's one less issue she has to worry about."

Other analysts say president Arroyo is also seeking support from bishops for her push to change the country's US-style constitution and set up a parliamentary system.

Backlash

The change in the death penalty law has drawn angry protests.

Manila jail inmate
Seven people have been put to death since 1994

The Philippines is plagued by violent crime, with guns readily available and used in even minor disputes. Besides kidnapping and extortion gangs, there are communist and Muslim insurgencies.

Anti-crime groups said they feared that scrapping the death penalty would make matters worse.

"This government is siding with criminals and not the victims. Now some victims of heinous crimes may resort to hired killers to get justice," said Dante Jimenez of the Volunteers Against Crime and Corruption, a prominent group whose members are relatives of hundreds of victims.

Mr Jimenez said he suspected the Arroyo administration rushed to abolish the death penalty in an effort to please Pope Benedict XVI, whom the president met on Monday.

'Place in history'

The new law means that sentences for about 1,200 inmates on death row will be changed to life in prison.

Joel Rocamora of the Institute for Popular Democracy said the abolition of capital punishment was unpopular and saw the change in the law as a precursor to getting Dutch authorities to deport the founder of the Communist Party of the Philippines, Jose Maria Sison.

Most of the convicted are the poor because the rich bribe their way out of a sentence
Earl Perrano, Institute of Political and Electoral Reforms

State lawyers in Manila have filed murder charges against Mr Sison over the death of a provincial governor in 2001.

But before Mr Sison could be returned to the Philippines from exile in the Netherlands, Mr Rocamora said the death penalty first had to be scrapped.

"I think Arroyo herself has decided her place in Philippine history should be marked by ending the country's insurgencies. Jose Maria Sison would almost certainly be jailed once he reaches the Philippines, but he is a crucial part of negotiations, he still leads the Communist Party and plays a major role," Mr Rocamora said.

The communist insurgency has killed more than 40,000 people since the late 1960s, deterred investment and stunted rural development.

This is not the first time the death penalty has been abolished in the Philippines. It was taken off the books in 1987 after President Marcos was removed from power.

Mr Marcos used the law to execute about a dozen people convicted of rape and drug charges, but some analysts say it was revoked as a backlash against his abuse of power and human rights during two decades in office.

But in 1994, capital punishment was re-imposed after a rise in crime. Under that law, seven executions were carried out by lethal injection.

In 2000, President Estrada ordered a moratorium on executions after strong lobbying by the Catholic Church, the European Union and human rights groups.

Mr Estrada said he would help to repeal the death penalty but was not able to fulfil his promise as he soon found himself on trial for plunder, a capital offence.

Mr Parreno said the death penalty was an issue that would always divide the Philippines.

"There are often miscarriages of justice as police work in the Philippines is very sloppy and technology is outdated," he said.

"Because the justice system is very corrupt, most of the convicted are the poor because the rich bribe their way out of a sentence."


VIDEO AND AUDIO NEWS
See the moment when the death penalty was abolished



SEE ALSO
Philippines stops death penalty
24 Jun 06 |  Asia-Pacific
Arroyo commutes death sentences
17 Apr 06 |  Asia-Pacific
Arroyo's 'lives for votes' gamble
28 Jan 04 |  Asia-Pacific
Philippines executions to resume
05 Dec 03 |  Asia-Pacific
Philippine executions suspended
30 Sep 02 |  Asia-Pacific
Arroyo under fire from Catholic bishops
19 Oct 01 |  Asia-Pacific
Profile: Gloria Arroyo
24 Feb 06 |  Asia-Pacific
Country profile: The Philippines
07 Apr 06 |  Country profiles

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