The execution of child rapist Leo Echegaray by lethal injection on February 5 in Manila has turned the spotlight on capital punishment in Asia. The Philippines abolished capital punishment in 1987, becoming the first southeast Asian country to do so. However, a series of sensa tional murder cases involving members of wealthy families and a rise in other types of violent crimes prompted Congress to re- introduce the death penalty in 1994 for 'heinous crimes' such as murder, rape, kidnap and drug trafficking. Echegaray, 38, was the first man to receive the death sentence under the revised law. Prior to his execution, no-one had been executed in the Philippines since 1976. . Echegaray's execution has stirred strong sentiments and divided public opinion in the Phil ippines, a predominantly Catholic nation. Anti-capital punishment advocates held several rallies outside the prison to protest against the execution. Filipino human rights lawyer and former senator Rene Saguisag said the death penalty 'turns a nation into killers'. Leading the pro-capital punishment camp was President Joseph Estrada. President Estrada, who is strongly in favour of capital punishment as a deterrent to heinous crime, rejected appeals on Echegaray's behalf by the Pope, the European Union and Amnesty International. He said Echegaray deserved to die 'because he committed an act of bestiality'. Those in favour of capital punishment say it is unrealistic to commute all death penalties to life imprisonment. The death sentence, they claim, is the most effective deterrent to crime. There are now 698 convicted rapists, murderers and drug traffickers who have been sentenced to death. Since December 31, 1993, Filipino judges have been handing out an average of 12 death penalties a month. Pro-life campaigners say at the rate the death sentence is being handed out, 5,926 convicts could die by the year 2002. In Hong Kong, capital punishment has been abolished since April 21, 1991. On November 16, 1966, Wong Kai-hei, a salesman convicted of murdering a security guard, became the last man executed by hanging at Stanley Prison's gallows. Between 1966 and 1991, a total of 254 criminals were sentenced to death but their sentences were never carried out because Britain had abolished the death penalty. They will spend their lives in prison. China is a strong advocate of capital punishment for violent crimes. The most recent high- profile case was that of crime boss Cheung Tse-keung who was executed last December. Cheung's execution led to renewed calls for the abolition of the death penalty on the mainland. Father Franco Mella, a member of the Hong Kong- based Joint Committee for the Abolition of the Death Penalty, said: 'There are more and more people now who believe if China is to become a civilised country, the death penalty must go.' In Asia, countries which have the death penalty include Singapore, Malaysia and Japan.