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Last Updated: Sunday, 21 December, 2003, 15:54 GMT
Philippines 'restores' death penalty
By John McLean
BBC correspondent in Manila

You would have thought that Filipinos would be a bit squeamish about capital punishment.

After all, their National Hero, Jose Rizal - the father of the movement for independence from Spain - was publicly executed by a Spanish firing squad.

A lethal injection table
Authorities could not get a gas chamber so chose lethal injection
He was lucky.

The Spaniards' usual method of dispatching rebellious natives was to garrotte them.

The Spanish colonial masters were replaced by the Americans, who brought the electric chair with them.

There are still many Filipinos who remember the Japanese occupation, and who speak with horror of the Japanese soldiers' habit of lopping off the heads of people who annoyed them.

Yet the squeamishness took effect only after the overthrow of the cruel and corrupt regime of President Ferdinand Marcos.

His regime, in addition to murdering countless political opponents, also revived the firing squad to make a public example of one alleged drug trafficker.

On and off

The post-Marcos constitution abolished the death penalty - except for what it called "heinous crimes".

That meant, in effect, that it was abolished totally.

Until the mid-1990s, that is, when - in response to increasing violent crime - a new law restored capital punishment by defining "heinous crimes" as everything from murder to stealing a car.

A lethal injection centre in the Philippines
Lethal injection centres in the Philippines have a backlog
The new law said convicts would be executed in the electric chair, until a gas chamber could be installed.

The problem was that there was nothing left of the electric chair except a black scorch mark on the floor of the execution chamber.

Some said it had burnt out, the last time it had been used.

So the justice minister was sent to America to buy a gas chamber.

There, the Americans told him that they had not built a gas chamber for decades, and they had forgotten how to do it.

Instead, they offered him some lethal injection equipment, and the justice minister went home and had the law changed again, to allow executions by lethal injection.


Meanwhile, the courts had been busy sentencing to death murderers, rapists, kidnappers and drug traffickers - but not, at that stage, any car thieves.

By the time a brand new lethal injection chamber had been built at the national penitentiary near Manila, there were hundreds of convicts awaiting execution.

Five years after capital punishment was restored, a rapist became the first convict to be executed by lethal injection.

When officials knocked on a lethal injection centre door to say the prisoner had been granted clemency, executioners thought it was a joke... A minute later the prisoner was declared dead.
The law gives the president power to grant clemency.

The president at the time was Joseph Estrada, who liked to be seen as tough on crime.

He was so tough, that on the day of the execution, he had the telephone hotline between the presidential palace and the death chamber disconnected, to prevent any possibility of him granting clemency at the last minute.

But Mr Estrada was not as tough as he pretended.

Dead tone

On the day of the second execution, with minutes to go before the appointed hour, a Roman Catholic bishop pleaded with the president to spare the convict's life.

Most Filipinos are Roman Catholics, and the Church is fiercely opposed to capital punishment.

Mr Estrada relented, and said he would order a stay of execution.

Former Philippines President Joseph Estrada speaking on a telephone
Former president Estrada's call to grant a prisoner clemency met an engaged tone

He picked up the telephone and tried to call the death chamber.

All he got was an engaged tone.

At the other end of the line, the condemned man - another rapist - was already strapped to the bed, and the order had been given to start the poisonous cocktail of chemicals coursing through his veins.

Witnesses said they heard a knocking on the door of the death chamber, and a voice outside saying: "Hold! Hold!"

Inside, they thought it was a prank.

One minute after the convict was pronounced dead, a presidential assistant got through on the hotline and relayed Mr Estrada's order to stop the execution.

Mr Estrada was later deposed, and is now on trial on charges of massive corruption - a crime that is punishable by death.

There were only half-a-dozen-or-so executions before Mr Estrada was overthrown.

Tough stance

His successor, President Gloria Arroyo, a devout Roman Catholic, objects to capital punishment on moral and practical grounds.

She made it her policy to commute to life imprisonment the sentence of each convict as the date of his execution drew near.

In effect, she abolished the death penalty, once again.

Philippines President Gloria Arroyo
President Arroyo wants the death penalty back to combat rising crime
But recently, there has been an increase in the number of kidnappings for ransom.

The victims are usually members of the Filipino-Chinese community, who dominate the economy.

Their money would be useful for Mrs Arroyo's campaign for re-election next year.

Mrs Arroyo now says that, from January, she will no longer grant clemency to condemned kidnappers and drug traffickers.

She is restoring the death penalty, once again.

But when the time comes for her to send her first death-row convict to meet his Maker, do not be surprised if that Filipino squeamishness re-asserts itself.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 20 December, 2003, at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

Country profile: The Philippines
21 Dec 03  |  Country profiles
Timeline: The Philippines
17 Dec 03  |  Country profiles
Philippine executions suspended
30 Sep 02  |  Asia-Pacific
Philippines execution first of millennium
04 Jan 00  |  Asia-Pacific
Estrada refuses to plead
10 Jul 01  |  Asia-Pacific
Phone call too late to stop execution
25 Jun 99  |  Asia-Pacific


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