[PHOTO AT LEFT - President Arroyo inspects a steel window at the EDSA Room of Kalayaan Hall, part of the Malacanang Museum that is currently undergoing renovation, on her way to a media briefing on the economy yesterday. Photo by WILLY PEREZ]

MANILA, APRIL 17, 2006 (STAR) Crime victims were shocked while death row inmates rejoiced yesterday after President Arroyo said she would commute death sentences to life imprisonment — a move that could save about 1,200 convicts, including al-Qaeda-linked militants.

In an Easter announcement apparently intended to mollify critical Catholic Church leaders, Mrs. Arroyo said the death sentence would be commuted to life in prison, but did not say whether she would move to legally abolish the death penalty, which has not been carried out in the Philippines since 2000.

Teresita Ang-See, a leader of the anti-crime Movement for Restoration of Peace and Order, said kidnap victims in the group were shocked, especially as there had been a resurgence of kidnappings lately.

"It’s bad news to be awakened to," she told ABS-CBN television yesterday. "They’re not only dismayed, they’re also shocked by that announcement. It’s the height of insensitivity and callousness."

Mrs. Arroyo’s decision is likely also to unnerve Chinese-Filipino businessmen who have been the prime target of kidnappers in past years. A group of Chinese traders, worried by new kidnappings, recently appealed to Mrs. Arroyo to set an example by executing convicted kidnappers, Ang-See said.

She said the President’s order "gives a bad signal that the government is softening on hardened, heartless criminals. More than the criminals, we deserve protection and consideration also from our government. The death penalty law exists and until it is repealed, (Mrs.) Arroyo is the last person we expect not to respect the law and just disregard it."

Volunteers Against Crime and Corruption (VACC) founding chairman Dante Jimenez warned that with Mrs. Arroyo’s decision, victims of heinous crimes would feel they will no longer see justice prevail.

"Those who opted to bring their cases before courts and battle it out with those who wronged them even if it took years will resort to violence," he said.

Jimenez feared that vigilante groups would proliferate, saying that this is because victims and their families "will take the law into their own hands. It (commutation) sends the wrong signal."

The VACC has been warning the Arroyo administration against granting too many pardons and being too kind to convicted criminals. The group is pushing for the stricter implementation of the death penalty law.

This soft stance, the VACC said, is evident in the anti-terror bill pending in the House of Representatives, which does not even mete the death sentence on convicted terrorists.

Former President Fidel Ramos, during whose term the death penalty was reinstated, said Mrs. Arroyo’s order goes against the global trend of countries imposing or reimposing capital punishment because of the threat of international terrorism.

"In many countries, the death penalty has been reimposed. Even Australia, which does not have the death penalty, has applauded the imposition of the death penalty (by Indonesia)... in connection with the October 2002 Bali (bombing) in which more than one-half of the fatalities were Australian nationals," he said.

At least 11 Islamic militants belonging to the Abu Sayyaf, a small al-Qaeda-linked group blamed for deadly bombings and kidnappings in the Philippines, are on death row.

Ma. Socorro Diokno, secretary general of the Free Legal Assistance Group, which provides legal counsel to poor inmates, said those on death row were delighted by the news.

"They’re really very, very, happy, They’re ecstatic," Diokno said.

Diokno, however, said Mrs. Arroyo should clarify whether all 1,237 death row inmates would have their death row sentences commuted, and she called again for the President to urgently certify a congressional bill seeking the abolition of the death penalty.

Under the Constitution, the President can only commute death sentences that have been upheld by the Supreme Court. The court has upheld about 100 death sentences while the rest are under review, she said.

Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez said the new policy covers those already convicted and those who would be sentenced to death in the future.

However, it does not abolish the death penalty, which would require approval by Congress.

No execution has taken place since 2000 in the predominantly Roman Catholic nation, where capital punishment has been opposed by the conservative Catholic Church but advocated by victims of heinous crimes and terrorist attacks.

Mrs. Arroyo, who has been grappling for months with vote-rigging and corruption allegations, has tried to woo influential Catholic bishops, who have lamented the crisis under her rule, condemned her policy of liberalizing the mining industry and criticized a plan by her supporters to change the Constitution.

The President has once said that languishing amid the appalling conditions in Philippine jails was worse than death itself.

‘No politics’

Malacañang officials said there was no politics behind Mrs. Arroyo’s decision to commute the death sentences of more than a thousand convicts. They clarified that individual cases would still be reviewed by other agencies, including the Department of Justice.

Presidential chief of staff Michael Defensor and Presidential Adviser for Political Affairs Gabriel Claudio, in separate interviews, said Mrs. Arroyo gave much thought and study to her decision to stop executions of death convicts and denied that it was meant to appease Catholic bishops, who have been opposing the death penalty, and convince them to support amendments to the Constitution.

"The commutation of death sentences to life imprisonment has nothing to do with Charter change," Claudio said. "This is well within the prerogative of the President and the public can be assured that she exercises such prerogative with judiciousness and only after reflection."

"There are no political motives; either way there are bound to be disappointments," he said.

Claudio added that Mrs. Arroyo had been "consistent about her respect and advocacy for human life."

In announcing the commutation of death sentences, the President said "anyone who falls and makes mistakes has a chance to stand up and correct the wrong he has committed."

"Jesus suffered for the redemption of mankind from sin and we should have hope in our hearts in suffering and always stand up strong when we fall," Mrs. Arroyo said in her Easter message after her Holy Week retreat in Baguio City.

A devout Catholic, the President declared a moratorium on the execution of death convicts when she assumed the presidency in 2001, but the rash of kidnappings and killings in 2003 prompted her to lift the moratorium.

No execution has been carried out under her administration.

Defensor said the individual cases of the convicts would still have to be reviewed and the order "qualified" by the appropriate agencies even as he maintained that it is within the powers of the President to commute death sentences.

"We have to look at the nature of the crimes committed, if you recall the President before made a decision to lift the moratorium on the death penalty because of the rash of kidnappings," Defensor said in a telephone interview.

He said Mrs. Arroyo had made consultations with some anti-crime groups before announcing her decision but he did not elaborate.

On the other hand, Philippine National Police spokesman Senior Superintendent Samuel Pagdilao said the PNP "respects the decision of the President as it is a prerogative that falls within her powers under our Constitution. The power to commute the death penalty to life imprisonment is a matter that is best left to the wisdom of our policy makers."

He said the PNP will continue to enforce the law, arrest criminals and help prosecute them so they will be removed from society where they can do no further harm.

"Life imprisonment will attain the same objective while giving those condemned a chance to reform or even transform," Pagdilao said. — AP, Paolo Romero, Cecille Suerte Felipe, Michael Punongbayan, Rainier Allan Ronda

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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