Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Spain lauds Arroyo for... commuting death........... sentences
By Jocelyn R. Uy, Volt Contreras

      SPAIN IS THE first foreign government to laud President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo for her controversial Easter message commuting all death sentences to life terms.

      The Spanish foreign ministry has thanked Ms Arroyo for staying the execution of Francisco "Paco" Javier Larraņaga Gonzalez, who was convicted along with six others of the 1997 rape-murder of sisters Marijoy and Jacqueline Chiong in Cebu City .

      Larraņaga, a scion of the politically entrenched Osmeņa clan of Cebu , is a dual citizen with a Spanish father (former pelotari Manuel Francisco Larraņaga) and Filipino mother (Margarita Gonzalez), according to the Department of Foreign Affairs, which released the ministry's statement yesterday.

      "The [Spanish] government is pleased with the measure of commuting the death penalty by the President of the Philippines , which will benefit [Paco Larraņaga]," the DFA said in a statement, quoting the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation.

      The statement was coursed through Philippine Ambassador to Madrid Joseph Bernardo.

      "The situation of Mr. Larraņaga has been the object of maximum attention on the part of the different institutions of the Spanish state that has been all the time interested in his fate before the Philippine authorities," it said.

      It cited the messages of concern issued by the Spanish king and then President Jose Ma. Aznar, as well as "the interest of the Parliament, and the personal representations of the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation, the Minister of Defense, and the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs."

      "The Spanish government wishes to express its most sincere gratitude to the government of the Philippines , in particular to its President, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo," it added.

Abducted

      The Chiong sisters were abducted on the evening of July 16, 1997, while waiting for their father to pick them up at the Ayala Center Cebu.

      The body of Marijoy, 20, was found two days later in a secluded ravine in the nearby town of Carcar .

      Jacqueline, 23, has never been found.

      Larraņaga's death sentence had drawn appeals for clemency from visiting Spanish delegations, among them lawmakers and diplomats, as well as other European groups opposed to the death penalty.

      The lobbying apparently paid off early on. Last November, the Spanish newspaper El Pais reported that Ms Arroyo had assured then visiting Spanish Defense Minister Jose Bono that Larraņaga's death sentence would not be carried out "while she is President."


      The convict himself had consistently proclaimed his innocence, saying he was in Quezon City attending a cooking class on the day of the crime.

2 life terms

      Larraņaga, Josman Aznar, Rowen Adlawan, Alberto Cano, Ariel Balansag and brothers James Andrew and James Anthony Uy drew two life sentences each in May 1999 for the rape-murder of the Chiong sisters.

      In a bizarre twist in the case, Judge Martin Ocampo, who had tried and convicted the seven youths, was found dead in a hotel room in Cebu in October 1999.

      Authorities later ruled his death a suicide and said that no foul play was involved.

      In February 2004, the Supreme Court upgraded the punishment of Larraņaga et al., except for one of the group, to death by lethal injection.

                               
BILIBID-BOUND: Larraņaga in 1999 on board a boat from Cebu to Manila and on to death row. TONEE DESPOJO

      The life sentence on James Anthony Uy, who was a minor at the time of the crime, was retained.

      In July last year, the Supreme Court en banc denied the motions for reconsideration filed by Larraņaga and four other convicts.

Entry of judgment

      But according to New Bilibid Prisons Director Vicente Vinarao, only after the Supreme Court had made an "entry of judgment" on his sentence would Larraņaga join the 81 death row inmates whose penalties had been "affirmed with finality," and who would be automatically covered by the President's commutation.

      Based on NBP records obtained by the Inquirer, at least 198 death row inmates are waiting for their sentences to be "affirmed with finality."

      Larraņaga is included in this number, Vinarao said.

      "Once entry of judgment is made by the Supreme Court and the order is handed down to us, that's the time the Office of the President will issue another order for commutation," he said.

      But Vinarao expressed certainty that Larraņaga would benefit from the commutation, saying that his sentence had been affirmed and that he was "only waiting for the papers" from the high court.

      Vinarao said the 81 convicts ready for commutation -- among them four women -- had been assigned to a separate cell in Building 1.

      "When the President hands down the commutation order, they will be ready to undergo the one-month physical and neuro-psychiatric orientation," he said.

Inmates' wish

      An inmate, who requested anonymity for security purposes, said he and other death convicts with appeals pending in court were wishing that all 1,110 prisoners in Building 1 would be covered by the commutation.

      "We are praying and hoping that the reprieve will not be discriminating. We pray that even those whose sentences are under review will be included," he said.

      The inmate said most of the convicts on death row were farmers and vendors from poor families who were convicted of kidnapping for ransom, murder and violation of the Dangerous Drugs Act.

      Others were convicted of car theft with murder, highway robbery and parricide, he said.

      "We and our families are really thankful to the President. Our relatives working abroad have sent e-mail messages to the Office of the President expressing our gratitude," the inmate said.

'Moral high ground'

      "We also pray that the victims of the crimes committed would have space in their hearts for forgiveness," he said.

      A DFA official, who declined to be named because he was not authorized to speak to reporters, said the Spanish message praising Ms Arroyo for her move was a welcome development for Philippine foreign service officers lobbying to save Filipinos working overseas from death sentences.

      He said the President's move put the Philippine government on a "moral high ground" in asking other states to spare the lives of condemned Filipinos for humanitarian reasons.


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