APRIL 19, 2006 (STAR) By Aurea Calica - President Arroyo is willing to put her position on the line by certifying as urgent a consolidated version of several bills seeking to abolish the death penalty, Malacañang said yesterday.

Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye said Presidential Political Adviser Gabriel Claudio was preparing for today’s certification of the House bills as Mrs. Arroyo wants to show her resolve to preserve even the lives of hardened criminals.

"The President’s stand is unequivocal," Bunye said.

He said the Palace would no longer engage in debates on facts and figures as it believes that discussions would now have to shift to Congress, which will take up a possible repeal of the death penalty law.

Mrs. Arroyo’s Easter Sunday announcement that she would commute all pending death sentences to life imprisonment sparked both cheers from religious and human rights groups and jeers from families of victims of heinous crimes.

Pro-life lawmakers from both the Senate and the House of Representatives expressed elation over the President’s decision to commute the death sentences and push for abolition of the death penalty law.

Republic Act 7659, the death penalty law, was enacted by Congress in January 1994 to stop the rise in heinous crimes. It made the Philippines one among 91 countries worldwide that still implement capital punishment.

An endorsement by the President is expected to jump-start the legislation of numerous anti-death penalty bills that have languished in Congress because of lack of support.

Bunye and Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita stressed the President did not violate any laws in ordering the commutation of death sentences.

The President "is taking this not as a political battle but as a basic moral issue affecting pro-life values, in the belief that forgiveness and compassion will serve the best interest of the nation and the society," Bunye said.

"The President’s moral compass clearly indicates that no executions will take place under her term. And she is prepared to certify legislation to abolish the death penalty so that this issue can be fully discussed and debated upon in the legislature," he added.

Bunye said the President’s latest action affirmed her deeply held Christian beliefs and did not violate the constitutional separation of powers, as some sectors had claimed.

"As in many instances in the past, she is placing her position on the line while acknowledging the negative reactions and strong arguments against it," he said.

Ermita, for his part, said the President is given authority under the Constitution to commute criminal sentences and grant executive clemency.

"Maybe the President will not hesitate to change her policy once she sees that the crime rate is up. But right now I think the President deems it best to commute the (death) sentences for compassionate reasons," he said.

Bunye and Ermita said the President studied her policy very carefully before she made the declaration on Easter.

Ermita said the death penalty is not imposed in Europe and her latest order could help hasten the extradition of Filipinos wanted for various offenses. He pointed out that some extradition proceedings could not be pursued at present as some European government refuse to turn over fugitives hiding in their countries because of the Philippines’ death penalty law.

He also sought to cool the anger of outraged families of victims of heinous crimes, who threatened to take the law into their own hands after Mrs. Arroyo commuted the sentences of all death row convicts.

"That is just an immediate reaction," Ermita said. "We do not want to impute ill motives on their part, but I’m sure they will see the light."

Some law experts said the commutation was an affront to the Supreme Court and Congress because it ran roughshod over the separation of powers among the three branches of government.

They said the President could not just disregard the courts and Congress that had approved the death penalty law.

In a speech before international journalists in February, Mrs. Arroyo declared her intention to abolish the death penalty because it went against her Catholic beliefs.

Bureau of Corrections Director Vicente Vinarao said that for the 81 death row convicts whose sentences have been affirmed by the Supreme Court, the President’s Easter announcement is "like manna from heaven, which they thought would never dawn upon them as they have always... thought they would soon be executed."

He also said it is possible for these 81 inmates to have the life sentence imposed on them reduced to 30 years or less — or even be granted parole — once authorities assess that they had behaved properly and did not violate the rules and regulations while inside the National Bilibid Prisons.

Four out of the 81 death row convicts are female, all of whom were convicted of kidnap for ransom.

Criticism misplaced

Deputy Majority Leader Edcel Lagman said the criticism that Mrs. Arroyo’s order violated the separation of powers was false.

"The constitutional allocation of the power to grant reprieves, commutations and pardons to the President is pursuant to the principle of checks and balances," he said in a statement.

He pointed out that the doctrine of separation of powers "prevents Congress from passing a law which would dilute or circumscribe the power of the President to grant clemency and enjoins the Supreme Court from reviewing the wisdom or reasonableness of the President’s exercise of her power to commute sentences and grant pardons after final conviction."

While this particular power is "almost absolute," Lagman said Mrs. Arroyo still has to comply with certain constitutional limitations such as she cannot grant clemency to public officials convicted in impeachment proceedings, she cannot extend clemency to those convicted of election-related offenses without a favorable recommendation by the Commission on Elections, and she can only grant reprieves, commutations and pardons after final conviction by the Supreme Court.

Reps. Marcelino Libanan of Eastern Samar and Douglas Cagas of Davao del Sur urged the families of victims of heinous crimes not to push through with reported plans to pay guns-for-hire to kill the inmates who have wronged them.

"We appeal to them to remain calm and continue to abide by and respect the law. The President’s decision does not change the courts’ guilty judgment rendered on these convicts and their prescription for capital punishment for the crimes they committed," they said in a joint statement.

Former senator Francisco Tatad, who opposes capital punishment, said Mrs. Arroyo may have "exceeded her authority" in issuing her commutation order.

"While the President is empowered by the Constitution to grant reprieves, commutations and pardons after conviction by final judgment, he or she can only do so on a case-by-case basis, after studying the merits of each case," he said.

Tatad added that he suspects Mrs. Arroyo’s move was a bid to regain the support of the Roman Catholic Church and smoothen over the controversies hounding her administration.

His suspicion was shared by Sen. Jinggoy Estrada, who said the President’s commutation order was part of a scheme to convince Church officials to drop their opposition to Charter change, "which is intended to keep Mrs. Arroyo in power."

In a pastoral letter, the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines aired its concern that proponents of the people’s initiative may not have provided people with enough information about Charter change during efforts to gather signatures and pave the way for a shift in the form of government. — With Paolo Romero, Christina Mendez, Marvin Sy, Rhodina Villanueva

Palace dares Cha-cha critics anew to debate By Paolo Romero The Philippine Star 04/19/2006

Malacañang reiterated its challenge yesterday to critics of President Arroyo’s initiative to amend the Constitution to "come down from their ivory tower" and debate the issue openly.

Palace officials earlier asked opponents to discuss Mrs. Arroyo’s plan to change the country’s form of government based on its merits instead of imputing malice on the administration.

"We challenge critics of the move to amend the Constitution to come down from their ivory tower and feel the beat of the grass roots," said Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye, Mrs. Arroyo’s spokesman.

He was apparently referring to a people’s initiative signature campaign that had gathered wide national support.

"Now is the time to engage in an informed and transparent debate cutting across political, religious or demographic lines. We cannot lose this opportunity of a lifetime to change our nation for the better."

Bunye also welcomed an announcement from the largest organization of evangelical churches in the country, the Philippine Council of Evangelical Churches (PCEC), to help inform the public on the issue.

Bishop Efraim Tendero, PCEC national director, said they want Filipinos to make an informed choice.

"Our member bodies are conducting their own information drive on Charter change and we are encouraging our leaders to involve their constituencies in the campaign in different areas nationwide," Tendero said in a statement.

The PCEC — made up of 85 denominations, 130 missions and over 20,000 local churches — was the first major religious organization to express support for the move to amend the Constitution.

Tendero said they launched the information drive "so that people will be able to articulate and hear everything about this pressing issue on the need for constitutional reforms."

So far, "based on the campaigns we’ve had, those who joined the discussions had a positive outlook toward Charter change," he said.

Info drive set

Meanwhile, the Liga ng mga Barangay sa Pilipinas (League of Barangays of the Philippines) is also mounting a public information drive.

"We will call a national assembly of the Liga in the next two weeks to plan this massive campaign, which will involve all of the 42,000 barangays in the country," said Liga national president James Marty Lim.

"Everyone is welcome to participate in the discussions, whether they are for or against the proposed amendments being proposed through the people’s initiative," he said. "We need all the help we can get to help explain to the people the details and implications of the proposed shift to a parliamentary system of government."— With Edu Punay, Marvin Sy

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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