Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte says a prayer in a file photo. Image: Facebook
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte says a prayer in a file photo. Image: Facebook

On March 11, at the beginning of the Lent season in the Philippines, where more than 90% of the population are Catholic Christians, the brutal murder and possible sexual assault of Christine Lee Silawan, a 16-year-old girl from Cebu City, in Central Visayas region, revived the call for the death penalty. The girl’s face was skinned, and the esophagus, tongue, and trachea were missing. A 17-year-old suspect was under the police custody. He was later released because of technicalities. The girl’s gruesome death reminded the nation of President Rodrigo Duterte’s promise: reimposition of capital punishment for drug-related offenses and heinous crimes.

On March 7, 2017, House Bill 4727 was approved in Congress. If it becomes law, the bill will revive the death penalty either by hanging, firing squad, or lethal injection. It was lauded by Malacañang Palace as an effective measure on Duterte’s war on drugs, but the Senate does not see it as a priority.

During the 2016 presidential campaign, Duterte promised to revive the death penalty, believing that it would be a deterrent to criminals, specifically the drug lords. He believes that the “essence of the country’s penal code is retribution.”

In the 2018 Global Peace Index Report conducted by the Australian-based Institute for Economics and Peace, the Philippines ranked as the second least peaceful country in the Asia-Pacific region, despite the lower crime rate recorded by the Philippine National Police (PNP) in the same year.

According to the PNP, the crime rate was reduced to 9.13%, or a total of 473,068 crimes compared with 520,641 crimes posted in 2017. However, the murder rate in the capital city  Manila was up by 112%. Common crimes in the Philippines include crime against a person – murder, rape, domestic violence – and crime against property, which includes robbery, theft and fraud. Drug trafficking and trade, human trafficking, and corruption are also rampant despite the government’s effort to curb criminality.

Crime against women

According to Edna Aquino, convener of the #Babae Ako (Iamawoman) Campaign, violence against women and girls, particularly rape, has been invoked in arguments to impose the death penalty. However, Aquino instead urges strong enforcement of existing laws such as those against rape and child abuse.

“Most women survivors of violence wish to see true and impartial justice delivered to them through fair trials and convictions, and through more robust enforcement of existing laws,” Aquino said.

According to the Center for Women’s Resources, one woman or child is raped every hour in the Philippines.

Duterte is known for his misogynistic comments and encouragement of killings. During his speech to soldiers and rebel returnees in Mindanao, he was quoted as saying that raping three women is OK, and told them to shoot female rebels in their genitals.

Davao City in Mindanao, Duterte’s bailiwick, had the highest number of rape cases in 2018, according to the PNP.

Father Flavie Villanueva, a Society of the Divine Word coordinator and the founder of Justice-Peace Integrity of Creation and also the executive director of AJ Kalinga Inc, believes that Duterte’s words have impact on how men treat women.

“Mr Duterte is not an ordinary citizen, he has the highest seat in the executive branch. When you say executive, what he says becomes a policy. There is no room here for freedom of expression. Because every expression that you create is regarded by people as something as executive,” Father Villanueva said.

‘Life is sacred’

In his second State of the Nation Address (SONA) in 2017, Duterte expressed his support for the reimposition of the death penalty, triggering criticisms from the Catholic hierarchy, from human-rights activists, and even from senators.

“In the Philippines, it is really an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. You took life, you must pay it with life. That is the only way to [make it] even. You cannot place a premium on the human mind that he will go straight,” Duterte said during the SONA.

The Commission on Human Rights (CHR) disagreed.

“We want punishment for the horrendous act committed but we do not call for the killing of a suspect nor the perpetrator who will be subjected to the imperfect justice system run by imperfect duty bearers,” CHR commissioner Karen Gomez-Dumpit said. She stressed that the death penalty is equated to a murder perpetrated by state agents because it is deliberate and premeditated and purposely kills a person. Father Villanueva agreed that it can never solve crimes, but instead creates a culture of fear and violence.

Aquino said the death penalty “threatens the fundamental rights of people, capital punishment will dismantle any hopes we have of building a peaceful, accountable and equal society which values human life and human rights; it further erodes our hopes for a people-centric governance model.”

‘Dancing with death’

In the only country in Asia to first ban the death penalty, then later reimpose it and ban it again, the international community as well as the Catholic Church and human-rights advocates are focusing again on Duterte’s latest stand on reviving capital punishment.

House Bill 4727, authored by former House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez, was approved in Congress. The bill seeks death or life-long imprisonment on conviction of drug-related charges, including trafficking, manufacturing, importing, maintenance of drug dens and other drug-related crimes. The crime of plunder is no longer included. It will not impose the death penalty on convicted persons who were below 18 years of age or more than 70 years old during the commission of the crime.

Flawed justice

According to the Supreme Court decision on the case of People vs Mateo in 2004, after 11 years, it was found that there was a 71.77% error rate in verdicts and decisions impacting disproportionately against the poor. Before 2006, 483 death-penalty cases or 53.25% were reduced to reclusión perpetua or life imprisonment, while 65 cases were acquitted.

Blaming the CHR for the rise of crimes or why criminals get away is illogical.

“CHR does not have the mandate of being a law enforcer. We cannot digress from the issues that matter and must help, within our respective mandates and responsibilities, the police and other law-enforcement agencies’ mission to serve and protect the people. The police as a human-rights protector of all persons (without exception) need to be put at the front and center of the ‘solutions to rising criminality’ debate,” Gomez-Dumpit said.

Aquino also said there was an urgent need for reforms in the justice system. Court cases can can drags on for several years, in addition to biased and prejudicial proceedings and frequent miscarriages of justice.

In a 2018 survey of Social Weather Stations and CHR, it was found out that 7 out of 10 Filipinos do not support the death penalty.

Dual purpose

Capital punishment in the Philippines has a long history. During the Spanish period (1521-1898), American colonization, the Japanese occupation and the martial-law era under the Ferdinand Marcos regime, capital punishment was used not only to deter crimes but also used to curtail freedom.

After the People Power Revolution the death penalty was abolished by the 1987 constitution, “unless for compelling reasons involving heinous crimes, Congress hereafter provides for it.” The Philippines thus became the first country in Asia to abolish the death penalty.

However, calls for the reimposition of the death penalty did not abate. The military lobbied for members of the Communist Party of the Philippines to be executed.

But it was only in 1993, during the presidency of Fidel Ramos, a Protestant, that the death penalty was restored by virtue of Republic Act 7659 because of rising criminality.

Despite the death penalty, however, the crime rate continued to soar. In 1999 it increased by 15.3%. President Joseph Estrada issued a de facto moratorium on executions because of pressure from the Catholic Church and rights groups.

Finally, on June 24, 2006, president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo signed into law the Republic Act 9346, titled “An Act Prohibiting the Imposition of the Death Penalty.” The death penalty was downgraded to life imprisonment. The Philippines entered the ratification of the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights aiming at the abolition of the death penalty in November 2007. This act in effective binds the Philippines never again to reintroduce the death penalty.

Rule of law

Father Villanueva has seen the worst in his ministry to the orphans and widows of Duterte’s drug war. Although he thinks that the Philippines is already desensitized to the point of reaching the “threshold of inhumanity,” he still believes in restorative justice, where society must provide a chance for criminals to reform.

The CHR is always anchored on the universality of human rights and to look at violations of human rights, shortcomings, abuses, and failure of government institutions to uphold the human rights of all persons. The government (the executive) has the primary duty to implement programs that respect, protect and fulfill human rights.

“We are a system of laws. We adhere to the rule of law and the right to due process for everyone. The deprivation of due process is an injustice that will mean more when it is us or family who is affected. The guarantee of due process and the rule of law will ensure that when it is our turn, we are assured that we will be treated evenly and fairly,” Gomez-Dumpit concluded.

But Duterte has already imposed the death sentence on us Filipinos whether we are guilty of heinous crimes or not. His anti-people policies and shoot-to-kill orders are enough to wipe out not only the criminals but those who are opposing him.

Eunice Barbara C Novio is a Thailand-based freelance journalist. Her articles have appeared on Asian Correspondent, America Media, and The Nation. She is also a contributor to the Bangkok Post and Thai Enquirer and a stringer to's US Bureau. She won a Plaridel Award from the Philippine American Press Club.

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