Child rapist is executed in B-movie style

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THE GRUESOME circus surrounding the execution of the Filipino child rapist Leo Echegaray finally ended yesterday at exactly 3.19pm Manila time when he was pronounced dead after an injection of a lethal dose of potassium chloride.

The 38-year-old house painter became the first man to be executed in the Philippines for 23 years after narrowly escaping death last month when he was granted a reprieve by the Supreme Court, allowing Congress to reconsider its stance on the death penalty.

Congress, urged on by President Joseph Estrada and the rape victim, Echegaray's daughter-in-law, known as "Baby", turned its back on pleas to keep the Philippines free of the death penalty.

Only the President could have saved Echegaray but he came to office last May pledging to fight crime. He sees executions as a key tool in the battle. The crime rate remains high but President Estrada is pursuing a popular campaign to get tough on criminals.

He said on Thursday that he had no time to read Echegaray's last-minute appeal and yesterday declared that the hotline to the presidential palace, which can be used for appeals, was cut because he had no intention of listening to a reprieve request.

When the condemned house painter entered the execution chamber he was wearing a wrist band with the name "Erap" written on it. Erap is the President's nickname; Echegaray, like many other poor people, was one of his supporters. He also clutched a Bible and wore a badge reading "execute justice, not people". According to Zenaida Javier, the woman he married while in jail, he maintained his innocence to the last.

However, his lawyer, Theodore Tay, was more circumspect. "I believe he is sincere," he said, "and that he believes he is innocent."

Echegaray was accused of raping the then 10-year-old girl five times.

According to a prison official his last words were: "Baby, forgive me."

If this sounds like a track from a corny Hollywood film script it may be because the whole execution was surrounded in the morbid atmosphere of a B-movie plot.

Film-makers in the Philippines are busy putting together the story in a typically lurid fashion. On the eve of the execution, a local radio station aired a cassette recorded by his wife on her final visit, in which Echegaray spoke of his love for her and his dreams of their future life together.

Inside the prison, reporters were admitted to see the condemned man make his half-mile shuffle from his cell to the execution room.

Outside the jail where the execution took place, rival prayer vigils and demonstrations were held by pro- and anti-death penalty activists.

Echegaray's wife went up to the prison fence to have her picture taken with a pink rose in her hand. Around the nation church bells were rung at 3pmby order of the Catholic church, which has led the anti-death penalty crusade.

"This is a sad day," said Oscar Cruz, president of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines. "Life is taken away - not by accident, not by sickness, not even by a criminal, but by no less than the state."

A rather different view came from the presidential palace, where the President's men were busy churning out statements about how their leader had stood firm and was waiting for the other 914 inmates on death row to be dealt with.