Wednesday, June 7, 2006

Death penalty is dead
Solons OK bill repealing capital punishment

     IN A MOVE that would benefit about 1,000 people on death row, the Senate and the House of Representatives yesterday crossed party lines to approve the abolition of the death penalty, weeks before President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s visit to the Vatican for an audience with Pope Benedict XVI.

Saying that capital punishment was cruel, anti-poor and had failed to deter heinous crimes, the Senate approved on third and final reading -- by a 16-0 vote with one abstention -- Senate Bill No. 2254 scrapping the death penalty.

Also crossing party lines, members of the House passed their own version by a similarly crushing vote, 119 for abolition, 20 against and one abstention.

The two chambers are expected to hammer out a common version which Ms Arroyo, who has publicly said she favors the abolition of capital punishment, is expected to sign into law.

The twin congressional action would repeal Republic Act No. 7659 or the Death Penalty Law, which Congress reimposed in 1993.

It would also scrap Republic Act No. 8177, which prescribes death by lethal injection for those convicted of heinous crimes.

Instead of death, the penalty is downgraded to reclusion perpetua or life imprisonment without parole, under the Senate version.

The abolition would seem to serve as a good send-off gift for Ms Arroyo, who is to go on a foreign trip from June 23 to July 2.

Palace sources said Ms Arroyo would visit Libya , then go to Rome and the Vatican for an expected audience with the Pontiff, before proceeding to Spain .

In April, Ms Arroyo said she would commute death sentences to life imprisonment, drawing mixed reactions from crime victims and death penalty opponents -- and flak from critics, who said she was only after support from the Catholic Church.

Anticrime watchdogs, which had warned that the abolition of capital punishment would only encourage criminals, immediately denounced the congressional action.

                             ‘Voice of victims’

      “This bill is being railroaded like a bullet train,” said Dante Jimenez, founding chair of the Volunteers Against Crime and Corruption (VACC).

“This is being railroaded so when the President goes to Europe she can tell (Europeans) that the Philippines no longer has this law.”

Jimenez also said: “We were never invited by Congress nor by Malacañang. They are afraid to hear the voices of the victims ... Why weaken the law? If you weaken the law you strengthen the criminals.”

       The country’s Roman Catholic Church leaders also appeared to welcome Congress’ move.

Asked for reaction, the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines’ media office referred reporters to an earlier statement by CBCP president Angel Lagdameo that the Church was convinced that the death penalty had not served its purpose since criminality and corrup
- tion were still rampant. mm

      The CBCP had welcomed previous actions by both the executive and legislative branches toward abolishing the death penalty as a “humanitarian act.”
     Senator Joker Arroyo, chair of the Senate committee on justice and human rights, said senators crossed party lines to approve the measure.

Ms Arroyo had written Senate President Franklin Drilon certifying the abolition bill as urgent. Her certification paved the way for the bill’s approval on third reading.

Senator Jinggoy Ejercito Estrada cast the lone abstention.

“I would like to register a vote of abstention because I am a co-accused in a plunder case, which carries the penalty of death,” he said.

      Jinggoy and his father, detained former President Joseph Estrada, are on trial for plunder, an offense punishable by death.

Senator Panfilo Lacson initially opposed the abolition but withdrew his objection at the last minute after Drilon introduced an amendment providing for the penalty of life imprisonment or reclusion perpetua with no parole.

                               Moral stature

     Senator Arroyo said abolishing the death penalty would be consistent with the Philippines ’ standing as a Christian country and boost its moral standing before the world community.

When enacted into law, the abolition of the death penalty would benefit the more than 1,000 convicts languishing on death row at the New Bilibid Prisons in Muntinlupa City , he said.

“All of them are commuted now under the Senate bill; they would no longer suffer the penalty of death,” Arroyo said.

He said the Senate bill retained the President’s power to grant pardons.

The senators who voted for the abolition were its principal authors, Arroyo, Senate Minority Leader Aquilino Pimentel Jr., Manuel Villar and Richard Gordon.

They were joined by Drilon, Lacson, Ralph Recto, Edgardo Angara, Pia Cayetano, Francis Pangilinan, Maria Consuelo “Jamby” Madrigal, Alfredo Lim, Senate President Pro Tempore Juan Flavier, Manuel “Mar” Roxas II, Ramon “Bong” Revilla and Luisa “Loi” Ejercito Estrada.

     Arroyo said RA 7659 should be abolished because the death penalty had not proven to be a deterrent to crime and had become a dead-letter law.

In his sponsorship speech last week, Arroyo said the death penalty had been a dead law because no President since the rule of Ferdinand Marcos, wanted to carry out the death penalty law, except in two cases.

Long overdue

“What’s the point of having a law that has never been carried out?” Arroyo said.

On the proposal of Caloocan Representative Luis “Baby” Asistio, the House approved an amendment to its final version, striking out the term “reclusion perpetua” but retaining the phrase “life imprisonment.”

     “He (Asistio) argued that with respect to life imprisonment, it would be imprisonment in perpetuity until the (natural death) of the convict unless the President would extend clemency,” said Albay Representative Edcel Lagman, the bill’s principal author. With reports from Luige A. del Puerto and Jerome Aning

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