Rapist wins court stay on death penalty

 

Prisoners burst into cheers, priests leaped in the air and his wife fainted when a rapist won a court reprieve yesterday, three hours before he was to die in the first execution in the Philippines in decades.

Leo Echegaray, a house painter, convicted of raping his 10-year-old stepdaughter in 1994, was having his last meal in an ante-room to the execution chamber when told the Supreme Court had ordered a stay of execution until June 15th.

"You still have six months to go," a prison official was quoted by witnesses as telling Echegaray after the court voted eight to five to grant a last-minute appeal for a restraining order.

Echegaray was told of the court ruling at noon, three hours before he was to die by lethal injection at Manila's New Bilibid Prison. He would have been the first man to be executed in the Philippines since 1976.

The largely Catholic country abolished the death penalty in 1987, but restored it in 1994 because of a resurgence in crime. Before the court decision, Echegaray had broken down and cried repeatedly while confessing to a priest and hearing Mass in the execution chamber.

When he heard of the reprieve, he hugged the priest and asked his wife and three relatives to share what should have been his last meal - rice, dried fish and sardines.

"He was very happy and he would like to thank everyone," Echegaray's bride of one week, Ms Zenaida Javier, said before she fainted, overcome by emotion. The couple were married by the prison chaplain last week.

Hundreds of prisoners on death row, who had been holding a prayer vigil for two days, erupted into applause and cheers, prison officials said.

Priests praying at a makeshift chapel 500 metres from the execution chamber jumped in the air, and nuns and other anti-death penalty activists burst into a bouncy religious song, their eyes brimming with tears.

President Joseph Estrada, who had repeatedly rejected appeals for clemency for the condemned man and said executing him would discourage other rapists, was upset by the Supreme Court action. "I am very much dismayed by the decision," he said in a statement.

Mr Estrada said he would appeal the ruling. "The role of the Supreme Court ended after its legal review," he said. "The suspension is therefore a purely political and not a legal act."

He later appeared at a news conference with Echegaray's victim, now 15 years old. "Evil has its time, but the good will always have their day," Mr Estrada said. The girl kept her face covered with a handkerchief.

Echegaray's lawyers, in their appeal for a stay, said the court should allow Congress to debate new proposals calling for a review, if not outright abolition, of capital punishment.