MANILA, PHILIPPINES — Facing an election-year challenge from two law-and-order candidates, Philippines President Gloria Arroyo has lifted a freeze on state executions. It's a move that goes against the wishes of the country's influential Catholic clergy, but has popular support from crime-weary Filipinos, especially the ethnic Chinese elite who are frequently targets of crime.
President Arroyo, who until recently opposed capital punishment on moral grounds, is pitted against two candidates with crime-busting credentials - a movie actor with a tough-guy persona, and a former national police chief. Lifting the moratorium could prove a vote-winner in the May 10 presidential election. It also unlocks campaign funds from the wealthy Chinese business community that seeks tougher action against criminal gangs.
"I don't think she cares one way or another about the death penalty, but she's scoring points with the public," says Conrado de Quiros, a political analyst.
Church and human-rights groups have put up a noisy battle against the president, saying the judicial system is too flawed to hand down justifiable death sentences.
On Wednesday, the Supreme Court voted 7-6 for a 30-day stay on the execution of two convicted kidnappers. Lawyers for the two are calling for a new trial based on fresh evidence after the arrest of two other suspects. Arroyo welcomed the decision but offered no respite to the 1,022 Filipinos currently on death row. "I have always been prepared to enforce the law despite my personal beliefs," she told reporters.
Almost all East Asian countries carry out state executions for some capital crimes. China leads the world in state- sanctioned executions, while Singapore carries out the most executions per capita, according to Amnesty International. Several countries in Southeast Asia have mandatory death sentences for serious drug trafficking. China stands out both for the numbers killed - 20,000 between 1990 and 2001 - and its liberal definition of a capital offense.
Japan sentenced to death on Friday an 11th member of the Aum Shinrikyo cult for a deadly nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995 that killed 12 people.
Many Filipinos say they favor the death penalty for so-called "heinous crimes," including kidnapping, a long-running problem in the Philippines. A spate of recent kidnappings, including the abduction and murder last year of Betty Sy, an ethnic Chinese Coca-Cola executive, brought wealthy Filipinos onto the streets in November to demand government action. Arroyo responded with a new anti-kidnapping task force and a promise to restart executions that were suspended in 2000. "There's a feeling that nothing works, and the death penalty is one way out ... it's a sign of desperation in the system," says Maria Diokuo, a veteran human-rights campaigner.
Anecdotal evidence points to a broadening of the kidnapping trade with middle-class families being forced to pay ransoms as low as $400, compared to the usual targeting of wealthy businessmen. Anticrime activists argue that reinstating capital punishment will send a signal to the gangsters.
"If you implement the death penalty every week, I don't think these kidnap-for-ransom gangs will do it again," says Martin Dino, president of Volunteers Against Crime and Corruption, an advocacy group.
But campaigners opposing the death penalty say the judicial system offers scant justice to those accused of serious crimes. FLAG, a legal assistance group, calculates that 75 percent of capital convictions referred to the Supreme Court are overturned, often because they are based on uncorroborated confessions.
Discrimination against the poor is also rife in the Philippine judicial system, which offers plenty of leeway for those willing to buy their way out, say human-rights activists. A 2001 survey of death row occupants found that 40 percent had a grade 6 or lower education. Half weren't native speakers of English, the language of court proceedings and the Filipino elite.
Analysts say Arroyo may reverse course if her campaign gets bogged down in debate over the death penalty. Opposition from the Catholic church, which led a successful campaign in the 1990s against state executions, could tip the balance. "If the backlash gets too strong, then we're going to see her backpedal," predicts de Quiros.
The real law-and-order challenge for the Philippines this year may be the election itself. Arroyo has drawn flak for trying to rush in an electronic voting system that was rejected as unsound by the Supreme Court. Instead, the vote will be counted manually, which could take weeks because of far-flung islands.
Arroyo's opponents say they are on guard against fraud, and warn that any tampering could spark trouble, setting the stage for a nervous campaign.