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BY Jim Cosgrove
MANILA, Philippines—For the first time in 23 years, capital punishment was reapplied in the Philippines on Feb. 5 when a convicted child rapist was executed by the Philippine Supreme Court.
Despite appeals from the Vatican, the European Union, Canada, and Amnesty International, Philippine President Joseph Estrada insisted he would not grant pardon to the convict because of the nature of his offense. According to the Philippine Daily Inquirernewspaper, the president said the convict's crime was not borne out of poverty but by “bestial tendencies.”
Leo Echegaray, a 38-year-old house-painter found guilty of repeatedly raping his 10-year-old stepdaughter, was scheduled to be executed by lethal injection Jan. 4 but the Philippine Supreme Court ordered a six-month delay to allow Congress to review a law that restored the death penalty in 1994.
The decision was strongly opposed by Manila's Archbishop Jaime Cardinal Sin, the most influential churchman in the only Catholic country in Asia. Although the majority of Filipinos are Catholic, many of them also support the death penalty.
The court's decision to delay Echegaray's execution sparked an uproar among many Filipinos exasperated by crime. The president's wife, Luisa Ejercito, and Vice President Gloria Arroyo led thousands in a street protest in support of capital punishment.
The Church's opposition to the execution of Echegaray inspired supporters of the death penalty to accuse priests and bishops of siding with criminals instead of crime victims.
Cardinal Sin stressed that the Church “does not like to coddle criminals” and that while “mercy without justice is weakness, justice without mercy is barbaric,” according to news service sources. He added that the Vatican views the death penalty as theoretically permissible in circumstances when it is “the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.”
The cardinal continued saying that “the Holy See holds that such circumstances are ‘practically nonexistent’ in today's world, in view of the resources available to governments to restrain convicted criminals from committing violent acts.”
The convicted man's lawyers had released a study claiming that there were serious flaws in the country's judicial system which could result in the execution of innocent people. Echegaray's lawyer, Theodore Te, filed a motion for reconsideration as a last recourse to convince the court to delay the lethal injection. He debated that there were still some congressmen wanting to abolish capital punishment.
Justice Secretary Serafin Cuevas said, however, that he did not think the tribunal would uphold Te's petition this time because of the popular demand for the death penalty. “People might think that we are bloodthirsty, but we cannot do anything except to uphold our sworn duty,” Cuevas said.
Echegaray was the first among more than 800 death row inmates to be executed. More than 450 of those on death row are convicted of rape, including 159 who abused their own children or other close relatives. At least 11 other death row inmates could be executed this year and 10 others next year. According to the Philippine Star, other convicts on death row also wept upon hearing of the Supreme Court decision which could pave the way for their own executions.
“We cannot do anything anymore,” said Maria Socorro Diokno of the Free Legal Assistance Group, a committee of lawyers which has been representing Echegaray.
The Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines noted Estrada's position against the legalization of abortion. He had said he was “pro-life.”
But Archbishop Oscar Cruz, conference president, wondered how Estrada could be pro-life and pro-death at the same time, referring to his strong support for capital punishment.
Estrada retorted, to the Philippine Daily Inquirer, “They should not connect that. Their interpretation is not good. It's preposterous of them … pro-death does not mean against pro-life … pro-life was more … against family planning.”
Estrada continued: “Of course I am against [abortion]. In fact, I am eighth in the family. Had my parents practiced population control, I would not have been born. So when I say pro-life, I mean, I am against abortion.”
Diokno raised questions as to whether capital punishment actually deters crime. She referred to a study that crime in the Philippines declined since the abolition of the death penalty in 1987. (From combined dispatches)