- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 16, 2006

From combined dispatches

MANILA — President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo commuted all death sentences to life imprisonment in an Easter gesture slammed by critics yesterday as an abuse of power.

“I wish to announce that we are changing our policy on those who have been imposed the death penalty. We are reducing their penalty to life imprisonment,” Mrs. Arroyo said in a statement as the mainly Catholic country observed Easter festivities.

Her justice minister said the government would commute all future death sentences as well.

About 1,200 convicts are currently on death row and potentially could benefit from the decision.

But under the constitution, the president can only commute death sentences that have been upheld by the Supreme Court. The court has upheld only about 100 of those 1,200 death sentences at this time, and the rest remain under legal review, said Maria Socorro Diokno, secretary-general of the Free Legal Assistance Group, which provides legal counsel to poor inmates.

Those on death row include at least 11 Islamic militant members of Abu Sayyaf, a small al Qaeda-linked group blamed for deadly bombings and kidnappings.

Critics assailed the decision, calling it a move to win support from the country’s powerful Roman Catholic bishops for a push for a constitutional change from a presidential to a parliamentary form of government.

Mrs. Arroyo “should have consulted the families of victims of heinous crimes,” said Dante Jimenez, chairman of Volunteers Against Crime and Corruption. “Definitely, this will affect the drive against criminality.”

Teresita Ang-See, a leader of the anti-crime Movement for Restoration of Peace and Order, said in a television interview that the announcement was “bad news to be awakened to.”

The families of crime victims are “not only dismayed, they’re also shocked by that announcement,” she said. “It’s the height of insensitivity and callousness.”

But Mrs. Diokno said her clients on death row were rejoicing and called for Mrs. Arroyo to push Congress to permanently abolish the death penalty.

Mrs. Arroyo’s advisers denied that her decision was designed to woo the Catholic Church, which recently said it was concerned about the government’s rush to amend the constitution.

The church is opposed to capital punishment, and no executions have been carried out during the five-year rule of Mrs. Arroyo, a devout Catholic who regularly commutes the death sentences of those older than 70.

The government says the switch to a parliamentary system will reduce political turmoil in a country that has seen more than a dozen coup attempts in 20 years.

Her opponents, however, want Mrs. Arroyo to resign because of accusations of election rigging during the 2004 elections and suspect the constitutional change is a ploy to preserve her grip on power.

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