Wednesday, June 7, 2006

Congress OKs repeal of death penalty law
By Christina Mendez and Jess Diaz

     In two landmark votes yesterday, the Senate and the House of Representatives abolished the death penalty — 12 years after it was reimposed by Congress as the maximum punishment for heinous crimes.

Voting 16-0 with one abstention, the Senate approved on third reading Senate Bill 2254, repealing the death penalty law and replacing execution with life imprisonment without parole.
Similarly, the House approved its counterpart bill on second reading. This makes the measure’s passage on third reading a mere formality.
The House will proceed with its third and final-reading approval since the measure has been certified as "urgent" by President Arroyo.

Congress had to pass the necessary legislation in order to repeal the death penalty, which its proponents argue is an effective crime deterrent.

Since the Senate and House bills are both certified as urgent, they will go straight to the President for her signature instead of the usual bicameral conference deliberations, in which differences in the Senate and House bills are usually ironed out.

Malacañang praised lawmakers for passing the bills. "We congratulate and thank Congress for this historic act of statesmanship and humanity," said Mrs. Arroyo’s political adviser, Gabriel Claudio. "It’s great to see the upper and lower chambers’ legislative mills in high gear in defense of justice and the sanctity of human life."

House approval of the bill came hours after the Senate passed its measure.

Under the Senate and House bills, the sentences of convicts already on death row would be commuted to life imprisonment without chance of parole.

Sen. Joker Arroyo, chairman of the Senate committee on justice and human rights, led the Senate in seeking a repeal of Republic Act 8177, which restored capital punishment in 1994.

Out of 23 senators, those who voted to repeal the death penalty law were: Arroyo, Senate President Franklin Drilon, Majority Leader Francis Pangilinan, Minority Leader Aquilino Pimentel Jr., Senators Richard Gordon, Luisa Ejercito, Edgardo Angara, Pia Cayetano, Ralph Recto, Panfilo Lacson, Jamby Madrigal, Alfredo Lim, Juan Flavier, Juan Ponce Enrile, Manuel Roxas II and Ramon Revilla Jr.

Sen. Jinggoy Estrada, who is facing plunder charges that carry a maximum penalty of death, abstained from the final vote. "I would like to register a vote of abstention because I am a co-accused of plunder which carries a penalty of death, wherein my conscience is clear," he said.

Estrada’s father, former President Joseph Estrada, was ousted in 2001 by a military-backed popular uprising over allegations of rampant corruption.

He is currently on trial on charges that he ran an illegal gambling protection racket during his aborted presidency and amassed billions of pesos in payoffs.

Estrada and several others, including his son Jinggoy, are charged with plunder, which carries the maximum penalty of death.

The Senate, in passing Senate Bill 2254, upheld the president’s power to grant clemency.

"The President’s right to pardon is not curtailed," Senator Arroyo said, noting that the Senate has been "passionate" about abolishing the death penalty.

During the period for making amendments to the bill, Drilon noted that "executive clemency cannot be limited nor qualified by legislation." His move was adopted by the chamber.

Arroyo said the Philippines is now the only Christian country that has abolished capital punishment, "which is consistent with its values."

"This is a very big issue abroad, it is something which we can be proud of," he said. The European Union and international rights groups have been urging the Philippines to abolish abolish its
death penalty.

its death penalty.

"Capital punishment has not been effective as a deterrent to crime. What really prevents the willful violation of the penal code is a vigilant law enforcement mechanism, a resolute prosecution of criminal cases and a speedy resolution by the courts," said Senator Villar, whose Senate Bill 694 was one of three bills incorporated into the approved bill.

Repealing the death penalty law would also benefit Filipino migrant workers sentenced to death in other countries, Arroyo added.

"We cannot ask other countries to even commute our fellow countrymen (facing) the death penalty abroad when we impose the death penalty here," he said.

Filipinos are divided on the death penalty issue. Supporters argue it is an effective deterrent against crime. Opponents argue that the death penalty has been ineffective and claim that more efficient law enforcement and a speedy justice system are the solutions.

The death penalty was abolished after the downfall of the Marcos dictatorship in 1986 but the 1987 Constitution gave Congress the option of restoring it.

Fueled by public uproar over a series of high-profile murder cases, capital punishment was restored in 1994 for heinous crimes such as rape, kidnapping-for-ransom, murder, drug trafficking, treason, piracy, infanticide, parricide, arson and carjacking with murder.

Executions were carried out by lethal injection, chosen as the most humane form of execution. Executions during the Marcos era were carried out by electric chair.

Only one execution was carried out by firing squad. Shortly after the declaration of martial law in September 1972, convicted drug lord Lim Seng was sentenced to death by a military tribunal. President Ferdinand Marcos ordered the execution shown on live television as part of his crackdown on crime.

Seven convicts were put to death between 1999 and 2000, but Estrada declared a moratorium on executions amid pressure from the Roman Catholic Church and rights groups.

Despite the separation of church and state, the Catholic Church wields strong influence in the predominantly Catholic country.

There are over 1,000 convicts on death row and over a dozen of them are women, according to government data. The Supreme Court has upheld at least 160 death sentences.

In an Easter Sunday announcement, Mrs. Arroyo commuted all current death sentences to life imprisonment but did not say whether she would move to abolish the death penalty.

The Catholic Church welcomed the commutation in the spirit of Holy Week, calling it a "visible manifestation of a heightened moral consciousness."

Leo Echegaray was the first to be executed by lethal injection in February 1999 since the restoration of the death penalty for raping his stepdaughter. Six other death row convicts were executed until Estrada ordered a moratorium.

A devout Catholic, Mrs. Arroyo continued the moratorium but then lifted it in October 2001, saying the freeze had emboldened criminals, particularly kidnap-for-ransom gangs. No executions have occurred since the moratorium was lifted, however.

In September 2002, Mrs. Arroyo indefinitely suspended executions while lawmakers began debates on whether or not to repeal the death penalty law.

Mrs. Arroyo lifted the moratorium a month after the body of a kidnapped Coca-Cola Finance Corp. executive Betti Chua Sy was found stuffed in a trash bag in November — only to reverse her position later.

Some opposition politicians, however, suggested that Mrs. Arroyo’s commutation was aimed at currying favor with the Catholic Church.

The President is fighting opposition efforts to force her from office over accusations that she cheated in the 2004 presidential election.

She is also drawing criticism for her initiative to amend the Constitution and replace the current US-style presidential form of government with a federal, parliamentary system. The opposition accuses her of trying to extend her stay in office.

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