APRIL 20, 2006 (STAR) By Paolo Romero - President Arroyo may allow some exceptions to her decision to abolish the death penalty, taking note that the wholesale commutation of death row sentences to life imprisonment could weaken the anti-terror efforts of the government.

Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita said at a press conference at Malacañang yesterday there were ongoing efforts to reconcile proposals to abolish the death penalty with the pending anti-terrorism bill.

Both measures have been certified as urgent by the President, he said. The proposed anti-terrorism bill imposes the death penalty for some offenses.

Ermita noted that abolishing the death penalty for convicted terrorists might send a weak signal to the international community on its global effort against terrorism.

"There is no qualification as to whether the decision of the President to commute would be based on the type of crimes that have been committed but definitely, as time goes on, especially if we feel that — let’s say if we already have the bill on anti-terrorism and there is an upsurge of such crime — then maybe the President would have a change of mind," Ermita said.

Ermita clarified that he was only speaking hypothetically.

He said it would up to Mrs. Arroyo to undertake a review of her policy in case the anti-terrorism bill is enacted into law or in the event of an increase in heinous crimes.

"But for the moment her policy is the commutation of the death sentence to life imprisonment," Ermita said.

Ermita pointed out Mrs. Arroyo has been consistent in her resolve to stop executions during her administration.

She had commuted the sentences of 104 inmates as of March 21 this year, of which 80 cases had been affirmed by the Supreme Court, he said.

While there are currently 1,222 death convicts, only the 80 cases would so far be covered by Mrs. Arroyo’s policy as the rest have yet to be affirmed by the Supreme Court, Ermita said.

For his part, National Security Adviser Norberto Gonzales said the abolition of the death penalty would not weaken the government’s anti-terrorism campaign.

Gonzales pointed out some European countries do not impose capital punishment but have been very successful in their fight against terror.

"What’s important is that these terrorists will not be allowed to go out and cause death and destruction again," Gonzales told The STAR.

Families of victims of heinous crimes, on the other hand, called on President Arroyo to reconsider her decision, pointing out the move would cause a great injustice to them.

In a statement coursed through the Volunteers Against Crime and Corruption (VACC), they appealed to Mrs. Arroyo to be sensitive in her decision to commute death row convicts’ sentence.

"Napakasakit dahil hindi lang buhay ng aming mga mahal sa buhay ang nawala, pati aming kabuhayan, pera, dugo at pawis para lamang sa katarungan. (It really pains us that we have given our blood, sweat and tears to attain justice). Sa isang iglap na pag-abolish sa death penalty naglaho na rin ang aming buhay (And in one moment, all of it has been lost because of the decision)," they said.

Lauro Vizconde, who himself lost his family in a gruesome massacre in June 1991, pleaded for a reevaluation of the proposal to abolish the death penalty law in the country.

Along with other victims of heinous crimes, Vizconde led the group in appealing to Mrs. Arroyo to reconsider her decision to commute all death sentences already affirmed by the Supreme Court.

"Maawa po kayo (Please have mercy on us) or otherwise, kawawa tayo sa huli (we will be losing again)," VACC founding chairman Dante Jimenez told a news conference.

Jimenez claimed a majority of Filipinos still want the death penalty to remain as punishment against those found guilty of heinous crimes.

The group also called on lawmakers to separate the commutation issue from politics.

There had been claims that the commutation of death sentences was made in a bid to appease the Catholic Church over certain political issues.

And there were apprehensions that the abolition of the death penalty would trigger a resurgence of vigilante crime.

"Crime is not solved by committing another crime. Justice is always on the righteous side," Philippine National Police (PNP) chief Director General Arturo Lomibao said.

Lomibao warned vigilantes against taking the law into their own hands or resorting to the "Wild, Wild West way" following the President’s decision to commute all current death sentences.

Lomibao assured the police will not allow vigilantism as a form of retribution against criminal offenders.

"Such judicial shortcuts will only lead us back to the discarded ‘Wild, Wild West’ days where justice comes from the barrel of the gun, often weighing more heavily against the weak than the strong," he said. Certified urgent Notwithstanding the appeal for reconsideration, Mrs. Arroyo declared yesterday she had already certified as urgent all proposals seeking to abolish the death penalty.

Mrs. Arroyo again took potshots at the opposition-dominated Senate, expecting a delay in the approval of her priority bills.

She added the Senate, not the death penalty advocates, will certainly block the measure to abolish the death penalty law.

"I expect problems… because they (senators) are very slow in legislating," Mrs. Arroyo told reporters when asked whether the bill would be urgently passed by Congress.

"They are always investigating rather than legislating. That’s why we should change the system of government so (enacting laws) would be faster," Mrs. Arroyo said in referring to proposals to amend the Constitution and abolish the Senate for a unicameral parliamentary form of government.

Mrs. Arroyo, who attended the 61st birthday celebration of Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye at the Kalayaan grounds of Malacañang, said she had signed the committee report of Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman recommending the abolition of the death penalty.

Lagman has been pushing for the repeal of the death penalty law and was one of those grateful for the President’s decision to commute all death sentences.

Asked whether the move to abolish the death penalty would have bipartisan support, she said: "I hope so."

The House of Representatives and the Senate have been at odds over many issues as senators accuse pro-Arroyo congressmen of working for Malacañang.

Senators and congressmen are now blaming each other for the delay in the passage of the proposed P1-trillion budget for 2006, the anti-terrorism bill and other important measures.

Ermita, for his part, expressed confidence the bill would have bipartisan support despite efforts by some quarters to politicize the issue.

"(Our feedback is that) even the Senate is for the abolition of the death penalty," Ermita said.

Ermita said he was hoping the public would consider the President’s reason for making the declaration was to preserve life, even that of hardened criminals.

"They question every move of the President and put political meaning to her decisions. They even say she is trying to win over the sentiments of the bishops," Ermita said.

Ermita also allayed fears that abolition of the death penalty would hamper the government’s fight against terrorism and criminality.

Pro-life groups claimed the death penalty law had not been effective in deterring crimes.

They said efforts to curb terrorism and criminality could be effective even without capital punishment.

But victims of heinous crimes and their families expressed disgust over Mrs. Arroyo’s decision, saying justice had been compromised.

Even the communists claimed Mrs. Arroyo’s decision to commute all death sentences was "a fake."

In a statement, Jose Ma. Sison, self exiled founder of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), said the President could not nullify the death penalty law by herself.

"Gloria Arroyo should stop faking that she can nullify the death penalty law all by herself and make a wholesome commutation of the death sentences of more than 1,000 inmates who have been convicted of murder and other heinous common crimes," Sison said.

If the President is really that compassionate, Sison said, she should have first addressed the murders of 556 activists, labor leaders and journalists committed under her administration.

Sison said the death penalty law remains on the books and is implemented on a case-to-case basis. — With Aurea Calica, Cecille Suerte Felipe, Michael Punongbayan, Jaime Laude

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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