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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

THE DEATH PENALTY DILEMMA

A rapist's stay of execution divides the nation


THE 3,000-STRONG CROWD WALKED silently down Manila's fashionable Ayala Avenue Jan. 11. They were marching in sympathy with 15-year-old Baby Echegaray, who was raped seven times in one year (1994) by her father, Leo Echegaray. He was convicted, sentenced to death and then given a stay of execution Jan. 4. Baby clutched a rosary and covered her face with white cloth. So did other rape victims. Many of the marchers, including First Lady Luisa "Loi" Ejercito and Vice President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, wore something white - a symbol of lost innocence.

But this is not just a story about sexual violence. Or even child abuse. It is about the death penalty, about a society's struggle to reconcile its religious beliefs with its growing frustration over violent crime. Echegaray would have been the first to be executed since Congress instituted capital punishment in December 1993. The marchers on Jan. 11 thought he deserved it. The Supreme Court triggered an outrage when it voted to grant Echegaray a six-month reprieve, until June 15, three hours before he was scheduled to die by lethal injection. Not since the 1983 assassination of opposition leader Benigno Aquino Jr. has the nation been so polarized.

The Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines wants the government to repeal the 1993 law. They call it a sinful act of diabolical magnitude. Human-rights activists oppose the death penalty too, describing it as punishment only for the poor and powerless (who they claim comprise 90% of the 764 convicts on death row). Some lawyers question its usefulness as a deterrent to crime. But throughout Asia, only Cambodia, Hong Kong and Nepal have abolished capital punishment; of those that have it on the books, Bhutan, Brunei and Sri Lanka rarely impose it. Surveys indicate that fully 90% of Filipinos favor the death penalty. President Joseph Estrada quotes the theologian St. Thomas Aquinas to defend the law: "When a man is dangerous and infectious to the community, on account of some sin, it is praiseworthy and advantageous that he be killed in order to safeguard the common good."

Echegaray, 38, himself has become the best argument for the death penalty. Sullen and unremorseful, he even watched a pornographic movie the night before his scheduled execution. On Dec. 22, he took a new bride, who apparently will receive the proceeds from movie rights to his life. He claims to be a house painter, but was actually a drug pusher, according to his daughter. At the age of eight, she testified, her father made her a drug courier.

The Supreme Court granted Echegaray a stay of execution because, it said, there are indications that Congress is "rethinking the wisdom of imposing the death penalty." Estrada, who wanted to show his determination to curb crime with a high-profile execution, was furious. "The Supreme Court was misled," he fumed. The high court, meanwhile, has scheduled a Jan. 19 hearing on the government's petition to cut short Echegaray's reprieve. If the state's request is granted, then a lower court will schedule his execution. Judging from the public mood, Echegaray will face death before June 15.


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