[PHOTO AT LEFT - PRO-LIFE: President Arroyo is greeted by Apostolic Nuncio Fernando Filoni and Speaker Jose de Venecia Jr. shortly after signing into law Republic Act No. 9346 which abolished the death penalty in the country at Malacañang’s Heroes Hall. Behind them are some of the other members of the diplomatic corps.]

MANILA, June 25, 2006 (STAR) By Aurea Calica - President Arroyo signed yesterday the law abolishing the death penalty on the eve of her trip to the Vatican as she called on Filipinos — especially those on the pro-capital punishment side — to "celebrate life in the most meaningful way."

She allayed fears that the abolition of capital punishment "opens the floodgates" of crime, vowing she will not relent in battling terrorists and criminals.

"We shall continue to devote the increasing weight of our resources to the prevention and control of serious crimes, rather than take the lives of those who commit them," the President said.

Noting that she was signing the law a day after a car bomb killed six people in Maguindanao, Mrs. Arroyo said the government "will never be intimidated by these treacherous acts, and we shall fight terror as seriously as we embrace peace and development, solidarity among our law abiding citizens and our strategic alliances."

"This commitment stands firm, and we will not relent until the total defeat of terrorists in every part of the country," she said.

"We have taken a strong hand against the threats to the law and the republic, but at the same time we yield to the high moral imperatives dictated by God to walk away from capital punishment," Mrs. Arroyo said.

She called on law enforcers, judges, prosecutors and communities to help shoulder the responsibility of "sharpening law and justice for all."

"The rule of law, strictly enforced, shall ride side by side with social justice in paving the way for an atmosphere of political and economic security, so that every person and family shall have the blessings of stable employment, better health, education and public safety," the President said.

Papal Nuncio Archbishop Fernando Filoni, the Vatican’s envoy to Manila, congratulated Mrs. Arroyo and legislators who approved the measure.

"This could be another very important step to go on in showing that the culture of life is very alive and important in this country," Filoni said. "We cannot speak about human rights when death penalty is imposed."

Mrs. Arroyo signed the law shortly after returning to Malacañang from the St. Luke’s Medical Center in Quezon City where she was rushed late Thursday, suffering from acute diarrhea.

A tired-looking Mrs. Arroyo received senior legislators at Malacañang to sign the bill into law, which abolished a 1994 statute that mandated capital punishment for "heinous crimes."

Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita told reporters the President was "taking it easy" and "making preparations" for her trip to the Vatican, Italy and Spain, which was set to begin today.

"The President is in good condition after a day and a half in hospital. She was able to get a full rest," Ermita added.

Congress two weeks earlier approved a bill abolishing capital punishment despite protests from anti-crime activists, who believe Mrs. Arroyo, a staunch Roman Catholic, rushed its approval to please the Pope.

Mrs. Arroyo is set to leave for the Vatican today. She is scheduled to meet separately with Pope Benedict XVI and Italy’s President Giorgio Napolitano before traveling on to Spain, where she will hold talks with King Juan Carlos III and Prime Minister Jose Luis Gonzalez Zapatero.

‘In the name of life’

The Roman Catholic Church has been at the forefront of the clamor to abolish capital punishment.

"I thank the Church for the beacon of grace and discernment. When I meet the Holy Father soon at the Vatican, I shall tell him that we have acted in the name of life for a world of peace and harmony," Mrs. Arroyo said.

Akbayan Rep. Etta Rosales, one of several lawmakers who attended the signing ceremony and a staunch Arroyo critic, lauded Mrs. Arroyo for signing the bill into law.

"In all fairness to the President, when we (anti-death penalty lawmakers) ask for a moratorium on executions, even if she did not put it into writing she did go by her word," Rosales told reporters.

She, however, said the government should take strong action on the series of killings of left-leaning activists and journalists in the past months.

An anti-death penalty advocate group also said the administration should move decisively to stop the killings. "If the President truly respects human rights and values life, then she must speedily respond to these challenges: put a stop to the extra-judicial killings and the culture of impunity that gives perpetrators the audacity and liberty to kill and kill again," the Mamamayang Tutol sa Bitay (Citizens Against Capital Punishment)-Movement for Restorative Justice said in a statement.

Filipinos are divided on the death penalty issue. Supporters argue it is an effective deterrent against crime.

Opponents argue that the death penalty has been ineffective and claim that more efficient law enforcement and a speedy justice system are the solutions.

By signing the bill abolishing the death penalty, Mrs. Arroyo "has practically licensed drug lords, murderers, plunderers, kidnappers and terrorists to do their illegal activities," said Dante Jimenez, founder of Volunteers Against Crime and Corruption.

The 1987 Constitution abolished the death penalty, which the government of late dictator Ferdinand Marcos used to execute about a dozen people convicted of rape and drug charges.

However, the Charter also gave Congress the prerogative to restore it.

Fueled by public uproar over a series of high-profile murder cases, capital punishment was restored in 1994 for a number of "heinous" crimes such as rape, kidnapping-for-ransom, murder, drug trafficking and treason.

On April 16, Easter Sunday, Mrs. Arroyo commuted all death sentences to life and, weeks later, certified as "urgent" pending bills in the Senate and the House seeking the repeal of Republic Act 8177, which restored capital punishment in 1994.

The bill passed without dissent in the Senate on June 6 after a more contentious vote in the House of Representatives.

The lives of more than 1,200 death-row convicts — including at least 11 al-Qaeda-linked militants — will be spared due to the abolition of capital punishment.

Anti-crime groups warn that abolishing the death penalty would only embolden criminals and have earlier appealed to Mrs. Arroyo not to sign the bill into law.

Seven convicts were put to death between 1999 and 2000 until President Joseph Estrada declared a moratorium on executions amid pressure from the Catholic Church and rights groups.

Mrs. Arroyo continued the moratorium but then lifted it in October 2001, saying the freeze emboldened criminals, particularly kidnap-for-ransom gangs. No executions have occurred since the moratorium was lifted.

In September 2002, Mrs. Arroyo indefinitely suspended executions when lawmakers began debates on whether or not to repeal the death penalty law.

Mrs. Arroyo reversed the moratorium a month after the body of a kidnapped Coca-Cola executive Betti Chua Sy was found stuffed in a trash bag in November — only to flip-flop again later. — With AP, AFP, Evelyn Macairan

 AFP, Christina Mendez

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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