PHILIPPINE President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, seeking to shore up support from powerful Roman Catholic bishops, today signed a law abolishing the death penalty before her imminent visit to the Vatican.
The new law offers a reprieve for more than 1200 convicts on death row who faced lethal injection.
Some critics said the law was a sop to win Church support for moves to change the constitution and to soften opposition from bishops to a revival of the mining industry.
"We yield to the high moral imperative dictated by God to walk away from capital punishment," Ms Arroyo, a member of the huge Catholic majority in the Philippines, said in a speech.
The President was due to leave tomorrow for state visits to Italy and Spain, including an audience with Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican and meetings with thousands of Filipino workers in Milan.
"When I meet the Holy Father soon in the Vatican, I shall tell him that we have acted in the name of life for a world of peace and harmony," Ms Arroyo said.
Ms Arroyo, who survived an impeachment attempt last year over persistent allegations of election cheating, had declined to authorise any executions since the start of her presidency in 2001 and commuted all death sentences to life imprisonment in April this year.
"We're very happy and thankful to the president," Alfredo Corpuz, 49, sentenced to death in 1996 for kidnapping, said at the country's main prison in Muntinlupa, about 40 km south of Manila.
"I hope the Government could also give us a second chance by reviewing our cases because many of my colleagues on death row were really innocent."
But some convicts were ambivalent, dreading the idea of spending the rest of their lives in jail.
"It's really difficult and very lonely," said Arnel Alicando, 34, who has been on death row since 1994 and has not been visited by his family or friends in more than 10 years. "Sometimes, death is a better option."
The Philippines, whose government and legal systems are based on the US model, abolished capital punishment under its 1987 constitution.
But it was re-imposed under a 1993 law allowing lethal injection for people convicted of serious crimes such as murder, kidnapping, drug trafficking and rape.
Seven men, most of them convicted rapists, were executed before Ms Arroyo's predecessor as president, Joseph Estrada, issued a moratorium in 2000.
Leaders of anti-crime groups complained about ending capital punishment, saying the Government failed to consult them.
"The abolition is not very timely because of the existence of terrorist groups, hardcore criminals, syndicates and kidnappers," said Dante Jimenez, head of Volunteers Against Crime and Corruption.
"The abolition may mean that victims of heinous crimes might take the law in their hands."
Ms Arroyo sought to allay those fears, saying her Government would increase the "weight of resources to the prevention and control of serious crimes".