Discussion heats up as House deliberations on death penalty resume

Mike Navallo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Aug 05 2020 08:25 PM

MANILA - The House Justice Committee on Wednesday resumed deliberations on bills seeking to reintroduce the death penalty, more than a week after President Rodrigo Duterte reiterated during his State of the Nation Address his call for the passage of the measure.

Proponents of the bill took turns defending their position.

Manila Rep. Benny Abante invoked Biblical passages on sowing and reaping, and eye for an eye to justify the imposition of death penalty, going as far as claiming that God himself instituted death penalty for the good of mankind.

"If God did not see death penalty as a deterrent, and if He did not consider death penalty as right for the good of men and society, He would not have instituted it. Let me be clear on this, and let us not be misled. God (not man) instituted the death penalty," the pastor lawmaker said in his speech.

Abante said murderers, robbers, kidnappers, hijackers, rapists, plunderers, drug lords, drug pushers...should be branded with the stigma of infamy, they being the shame of a race...and...should be erased from the face of society.

ACT-CIS Party-list Rep. Niña Taduran, meanwhile said the certainty of death will create second thoughts in the minds of potential criminals.

Surigao del Norte Rep. Ace Barbers for his part said the deterrent effect of death penalty has never been proven in the Philippine context since there were only 2 executions in the country so far. He rejected foreign studies showing absence of deterrent effect, saying we have our own culture.

OPPOSITION TO THE DEATH PENALTY

Among the groups opposing the re-imposition of the death penalty who spoke at Wednesday's hearing were the Integrated Bar of the Philippines, the Free Legal Assistance Group, the National Union of Peoples' Lawyers, Karapatan and religious leaders coalition One Voice.

IBP National President Domingo Cayosa cited a Supreme Court case, People v. Mateo, where the SC found that 71.77% of death convictions were reversed by the Supreme Court, highlighting the possibility of wrongfully sending a person to death.

"The FLAG Anti-Death Penalty Task Force is firmly and unconditionally opposed to the death penalty and its re-imposition. It does not deter crime, it is anti-poor, and it violates the Constitution and our international law obligations," Chel Diokno, FLAG chairman said.

He cited police statistics showing that crime volume went down when the death penalty was abolished, while crime volume for rape went up from 1998 to 2002 when executions were being conducted.

He noted that based on a survey by FLAG in 2004, 73% of death row inmates were poor while 81% had low-income jobs.

"It is really the certainty of being caught and punished that deters crime and not the severity of the punishment. The only real and lasting solution to criminality is to strengthen the justice system. No amount of death penalty laws will work without that," he said.

NUPL's Colmenares echoed these concerns and pointed out that there's already death penalty in the Philippines today.

"Libu-libo na ang namatay na drug suspects. May mga nagnanakaw dati, nag-iisnatch ng cellphone sa Quiapo, patay. But it didn't deter drugs or so many other heinous crimes. So kung hindi pala siya deterrent, para sa akin, Mr. Chair, the main reason for the proposal for the imposition of death penalty is taken out, kasi wala na siyang rason," he said.

INTERNATIONAL OBLIGATIONS

A big chunk of the discussion however centered on whether the Philippines can opt out of international treaty obligations it entered into, with House Justice Committee Chair Vicente Veloso III insisting a treaty cannot amend the Constitution and Barbers reiterating the supremacy of domestic laws over international treaties.

Barbers said the Philippines, as a sovereign country, can do as it pleases, pointing at other countries like the United States and China which continue to impose the death penalty.

But Commissioner Karen Dumpit of the Commission on Human Rights pointed out that the Philippines' commitment not to reimpose death penalty is "legally irrevocable," having ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Second Optional Protocol, which do not have opt-out provisions.

She warned reinstating death penalty will affect the Philippines' ability to negotiate saving lives of OFWs on death row in other countries as it will look "hypocritical" in the eyes of the international community.

Cagayan de Oro City Rep. Rufus Rodriguez stressed other consequences of re-imposing death penalty:

  • The Philippines becoming a rogue state which doesn't follow international treaty obligations
  • The removal of preferential tariff rates for exports to Europe
  • More deaths during pandemic

Quezon City Rep. Kit Belmonte asked why death penalty proponents now seemed to reject international obligations arguments when they relied on it to justify the passage of the Anti-Terrorism Act.

DOJ: NO LEGAL, CONSTITUTIONAL IMPEDIMENTS TO DEATH PENALTY

Justice Assistant Secretary Nicholas Ty presented the DOJ position on death penalty, saying there are no legal nor constitutional impediments to reintroducing the measure.

Ty explained the imposition of death penalty is within the powers of Congress and is allowed by the Constitution.

ACT Party-list Rep. France Castro however expressed disappointment over the lack of data on the part of the DOJ as to the efficiency of the Philippine criminal justice system to justify the push for the capital punishment.

Rodriguez slammed the DOJ for being "uncertain" as to whether the Philippines will breach its international obligations if it reimposes death penalty, asking Ty to submit a position paper instead.

RODRIGUEZ VS ACOSTA

The highlight of the more than 5-hour-long hearing however, was the confrontation between Rodriguez and Public Attorneys Office chief Persida Acosta.

Acosta, who helped move for the abolition of the death penalty in 2006 and admitted to talking to then-President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to plead for the lives of her clients on death row, shared during the hearing about a change of attitude towards the measure.

She said she now supports Congress using its discretion to study whether to re-impose the death penalty, citing massacres, bombings and proliferation of drug use.

Rodriguez, who was dean at the San Sebastian College of Law when Acosta taught some subjects, quizzed the PAO chief about her "sudden change of heart."

"Remember you are the public attorney. You are the public defender. And therefore you are duty-bound to help those who are charged with heinous crimes and others... And now, the head herself, is now saying, 'Go ahead, you kill the accused because we believe in the death penalty?' Can you tell us about the sudden change, which is in conflict with your position as public defender?," he asked.

"Ang PAO po ngayon hindi lang pang-kriminal o pang-akusado. By virtue of the new PAO law, law office na po of the government ito. First come, first serve na po ito, kung sino mauna," Acosta shot back before citing the Supreme Court decision on Leo Echegaray quoting the "changing needs of the times."

"Kailan po ba made-deter ang krimen? Kung hindi natin sasabayan ng pag-aaral, paano po mapuputol ang mga halimaw na yan para maproteksyunan ang bayan," she added.

She vowed however that the PAO will do what it can to defend an accused and if she herself is convinced that an accused is innocent, she will talk to the President.

BIAZON DEFERS HOUSE BILL

In all, 10 House representatives have filed bills seeking to re-impose the death penalty, 6 of which limit the applicability of the penalty to drug cases, as sought by Duterte.

But early in the deliberations, Rep. Ruffy Biazon asked the committee to defer from including his House bill, saying now is not the right time to discuss a socially and politically divisive issue, which he calls "unnecessary distraction" at the height of the pandemic.

He also said that he has since taken the view that the Philippine government should strengthen its investigative and evidence-gathering capabilities.