GUMACA, PHILIPPINES -- In a jungle clearing south of here, a frightened young farmer accused of rape and murder stood before a communist guerrilla "people's court" one recent morning and confessed his crimes.

"My freedom depends on you," he pleaded before the assembled villagers, his grandfather and father-in-law looking on. Unanimously, the villagers sentenced the man to death.

Minutes later, beside a crude grave deep in the forest, four guerrillas and four communist militiamen took turns stabbing the condemned man in the back and chest until he fell to the ground, according to a young party member who witnessed the execution.

By the reckoning of communist officials and their peasant supporters in the southern Quezon province village, justice had been rendered.

"Justice is very expensive and very slow in the Philippines. Justice belongs to those who have the money to hire the best lawyer," said Joy, a cadre who observed the trial. "Our revolutionary justice is fast and inexpensive. And it is very democratic."

Several peasants interviewed in the days following that Oct. 31 trial in the hills of southern Quezon, about 110 miles southeast of Manila, echoed the young cadre's thoughts. Speaking through a translator, a farmer in his late 30s named Dante said he welcomed the communist system of justice.

Keenly aware of the frustration with which many Filipinos view their judicial system, the communists have offered a quick, if sometimes harsh and self-serving, alternative in many rural areas. Critics of the rebel justice contend that the communists are practicing vigilantism in pursuit of their political aims.

Communist officials acknowledge that their brand of justice is tailored to further their revolutionary agenda. Party officials interviewed in southern Quezon earlier this month said they consider the most serious crime to be informing the military of rebel activities.

A party official for the guerrillas' southern Quezon front said the crime is "anti-people" and "anti-revolution," punishable by execution. But the peasants interviewed in southern Quezon villages seemed to be willing to accept the rigid political strictures imposed by the communists as a price worth paying for a functioning system of justice.

Justice is one of the first ideals advanced by communist cadres and guerrillas when they enter a village. In a country where the government system of justice is at best expensive and slow -- and frequently non-existent -- the quick justice offered by communist guerrillas has a strong appeal for many Filipinos in the countryside.

Legal experts and foreign diplomats blame former president Ferdinand Marcos for gutting the Philippine legal system during 20 years of authoritarian rule. What remains in the country is the shell of a legal system that rarely renders justice.

If a case ever comes to court -- an infrequent occurrence -- the trial typically drags on for years. In the countryside, it is not uncommon for suspects arrested for petty offenses to languish in jail for two or three years awaiting trial. Many lawyers complain that "justice" is available only for those who are willing to pay the right price to judges and law enforcement officials.

President Corazon Aquino has moved to restore faith in the legal system, purging the ranks of judges personally appointed by Marcos and demanding greater accountability. But any real changes have been limited to urban areas, according to legal experts.

In the countryside, the communists' harsh brand of justice is viewed by many Filipinos as preferable to that offered by the government. The peasant named Dante said that even before the first guerrillas appeared in southern Quezon in 1979, he had heard that the communist rebels "were good" and "eliminate bad elements."

When the guerrillas first began organizing support in southern Quezon, the area was plagued by water buffalo thieves, Dante said. True to their reputation, the communists quelled the problem, he said.

Gradually, the guerrillas began applying their justice system to other areas, warning robbers, petty thieves, drunks, wife-beaters and adulterers to mend their ways, Dante said. Aggrieved villagers were encouraged to voice their complaints to the rebels for action.

If more serious offenders, such as robbers, ignored the first warning, "revolutionary justice" was summarily applied by the guerrillas. The offender would be executed, then the communists would gather villagers for a meeting and explain why the punishment had been meted out, Dante said.

The first "people's court" was held in 1986, when much of rural southern Quezon was under communist influence. The defendants were a couple accused of adultery, who had ignored warnings from local communist officials to end their affair.

The assembled villagers quickly found the couple guilty. As punishment, the couple was forced to parade in a circle before the villagers, wearing placards that read: "Don't be like us because what we have done is wrong." Soon afterward, the adulterous couple fled the village, a villager said.

The recent trial also highlighted the contrasts between rebel and government methods of justice.

Although apparently everyone in the village knew the farmer was responsible for the rape and murder of the young girl, authorities had made no effort to arrest the man.

Local communist militia apprehended the farmer as he worked in his rice field on Oct. 13, five weeks after the incident occurred. He was tried and executed on Oct. 31.