MANILA, November 25, 2003  (STAR) By Marichu Villanueva - President Arroyo doused yesterday calls by Chinese-Filipinos to restore the death penalty to curb rampant kidnappings, saying this will not solve the problem by itself.

She, however, admitted that the abduction and murder of Coca-Cola Export Corp. finance manager Betti Chua Sy last week may be part of attempts to destabilize the government.

The Department of Justice (DOJ), for its part, urged the President to lift the moratorium on the execution of death convicts, especially kidnappers, to to help minimize kidnap-for-ransom incidents.

Hundreds of Chinese-Filipinos took to the streets of Quezon City last Sunday, turning Sy’s funeral into a street protest that called for firmer government efforts, including capital punishment, to rein in kidnap gangs.

Mrs. Arroyo, in a statement released by Malacañang, said she will "continue to consult with congressional leaders" as well as with the influential Roman Catholic Church on the issue.

Church leaders had prevailed on her more than two years ago to suspend executions of prisoners whose convictions have been affirmed by the Supreme Court, as required by law.

"I am resolved to take all means to deter the commission of heinous crimes and strengthen criminal justice," the President said.

"But I must emphasize that the death penalty is not the end-all to heinous crime. The entire criminal justice system involving the police, the prosecution, the courts, the correctional system and community must be able to team up to prevent, deter and solve heinous crimes," she said.

Recent statistics showed that kidnappings-for-ransom, usually targeting affluent Chinese-Filipinos, were at a 10-year high in the country with a victim snatched on average every three days.

Political observers say Mrs. Arroyo is wary of locking horns with the Church prior to the May 2004 presidential elections.

The President, however, admitted that the rash of kidnappings in the country may be the handiwork of people aiming to destabilize her government.

"There could be a destabilization aspect in these events and we are monitoring it closely," she said in a statement.

In June this year, the President said no less than Philippine National Police (PNP) chief Director General Hermogenes Ebdane Jr. noted that kidnap-for-ransom incidents increase as elections draw near.

"In fact, there were pre-election years that there were almost 200 kidnapping cases in just one year," she said.

Ebdane, when he was appointed PNP chief in 2002, targeted 21 kidnap-for-ransom syndicates — identified in the PNP’s order of battle — for "neutralization" during his first six months in office.

The President assured the families of kidnap victims that the government, through the National Anti-Kidnapping Task Force (Naktaf), is addressing these cases as it wages an all-out war against four remaining kidnap-for-ransom groups in the order of battle.

She expressed confidence that Naktaf, headed by former defense secretary Angelo Reyes, "will keep closely in step with the rash of kidnapping incidents."

The President did not elaborate on what led authorities to suspect a destabilization plot was behind these kidnappings but she assured the public that the government remained on top of the situation.

"We have a comprehensive plan of action tackling all fronts and it is unfortunate that we have a spate of kidnaps even while we are raking in gains in the anti-drug campaign," Mrs. Arroyo said.

She added that the "government is doing the best it can and we need every law-abiding Filipino on board."

Before Sy could be laid to rest, kidnappers seized a 10-year-old schoolgirl on Friday and wounded her driver and nanny on one of Manila’s busiest streets. It came a day after the country’s most wanted kidnap syndicate leader and three of his gang members were killed in a shootout 90 kilometers northwest of Manila that also left a police officer dead.

On Saturday, kidnappers snatched Chinese-Filipino trader Nestor Villarin and his wife Susan in Sultan Kudarat. The couple managed to escape after the kidnappers’ vehicle flipped over during a chase by soldiers and police.

Surigao del Sur Rep. Robert Ace Barbers, for his part, warned that destabilization attempts may be the handiwork of "rogue politicians" who want to project the Arroyo administration as "weak and ineffective" and style themselves as "messiahs" out to save the country.

"These insidious criminal syndicates are more than willing to stake their fortune just to ensure that they could one day be the power behind the throne," he said.

Presidential Spokesman Ignacio Bunye said Mrs. Arroyo said she "is not closed to the idea of implementing the death penalty, especially on a case-by-case basis for the high-profile drug and kidnapping cases."

He added that she is continuing consultations with Congress because of a pending measure that seeks to review the implementation of the death penalty law.

In a radio interview, Bunye did not give a categorical reply when asked how soon the President will lift the moratorium on the death penalty.

Justifying Death Penalty

Justice Secretary Simeon Datumanong said yesterday the DOJ will make a recommendation to the President to review the death penalty law and enforce capital punishment, particularly on convicted kidnappers.

Datumanong and Justice Undersecretary Jose Calida told reporters that the time has come to resume the execution of death row convicts.

"We believe this will be a strong deterrent to those who are similarly minded to kidnap our hapless citizens," Calida said.

Datumanong said the DOJ’s recommendation will be submitted to the President soon.

Calida explained that the preservation of law and order is also in the Bible, justifying the imposition of the death penalty.

"The Catholic (Church) does not want it based on a position that death penalty is not allowed under the laws of God, if we based it on the Bible. (But) I can quote to you the scriptures that will justify the implementation of the death penalty law," he said.

Calida cited Genesis 9:6, which, in the New Revised Standard Version, says, "Whoever sheds the blood of a human, by a human shall that person’s blood be shed; for in his own image God made humankind."

Criminals On Rampage

Meanwhile, Manila Rep. Harry Angping filed a resolution calling on the President to immediately lift the moratorium on the death penalty following the spate of heinous crimes in the country.

In filing House Resolution 1401, Angping said criminals "have gone on a rampage since the death penalty has been suspended" and that only Malacañang has the power to lift the moratorium.

He said heinous crimes demand the death penalty "despite moral and religious arguments." Angping noted that the Chinese-Filipino community is starting to view the government’s soft-handed policy on capital punishment as inaction and insensitivity.

Speaker Jose de Venecia said the House leadership will have to consult with its members and the Church "and forge a consensus for the greater good of our people" on the issue of death penalty.

On the other hand, Senate President Franklin Drilon said in a statement that "there is an existing law on the death penalty," and that the President should not pass the burden on to Congress.

Mrs. Arroyo had earlier called for amendments to curtail the use of capital punishment, but Drilon said Congress cannot be expected to pass amendments with just 12 session days remaining before it adjourns ahead of the election campaign.

Reps. Monico Puentevella (Bacolod City), Augusto Syjuco (Iloilo), and Gerardo Espina (Biliran) welcomed the President’s decision to consult Congress and the Church on the death penalty issue, citing a need to review the moratorium on executions because of the rising incidence of kidnapping and drug smuggling in the country.

"Statistics will show that a mere moratorium is not an effective deterrent to crime. The real deterrent is capital punishment. While people clamor for the human rights of those convicted, we should also clamor for the human rights of those who were killed," Puentevella said.

Espina proposed that the death penalty law be applied to all convicts of heinous crimes, not just those in high-profile cases.

Akbayan Rep. Etta Rosales is pushing for the abolition of the death penalty. — With reports from Paolo Romero, Aurea Calica, AP, AFP

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

All rights reserved