House to revive death penalty hearings this week

The House committee on justice is set to begin debates on the return of the death penalty for certain heinous crimes on Wednesday, August 5.

The House panel scheduled the hearing for at least 12 death penalty bills filed in the lower chamber less than 2 weeks after President Rodrigo Duterte once again asked lawmakers to reinstate capital punishment via lethal injection for drug-related crimes in his 5th State of the Nation Address on July 27. 

House Majority Leader Martin Romualdez already promised “thorough” debates on possibly sentencing drug convicts to death – signaling the leadership’s decision to hold these controversial hearings right in the middle of the coronavirus crisis. (READ: Duterte’s fight vs oligarchs, death penalty bill to distract Congress during pandemic)

Pro-death penalty bill legislators believe the return of the death penalty will not only be a way to exact payment from criminals, but supposedly also deter people from committing heinous crimes. (READ: An eye for an eye: Can the death penalty bring justice to victims?)

Surigao del Norte 2nd District Representative Robert Ace Barbers, a principal author, already slammed critics of the death penalty bill over their “clamor for the human rights of offenders.”

“Unfortunately, while they talk about the human rights of the offenders, they remarkably skip talking about and defending the human rights of the victims,” Barbers said in a statement on July 31.

Barbers also disregarded the international treaties the Philippines have earlier ratified prohibiting the death penalty’s return once the legislation is already repealed. These are the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the 2 Optional Protocols.

“No country can dictate on another on how to run its affairs.  No amount of treaties and international agreements can take away the inherent right of one nation to govern within its territory, over its people.  Last time I checked too, this is called sovereignty.  That is why we have our own Constitution – and it allows death penalty,” Barbers said. 

Capital punishment was abolished in 2006 under the presidency of former House Speaker Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, a trusted ally of Duterte.

This is not the first time the House pushed for the death penalty under the Duterte presidency. In 2017, the lower chamber green-lighted the bill punishing drug-related crimes with death, but the measure was dead on arrival at the Senate. 

Another uphill climb?

But much like in 2017, it will be another uphill climb for the death penalty bills in Congress – even it is dominated by Duterte allies.

Albay 1st District Representative Edcel Lagman, one of the lawmakers who staunchly fought against the death penalty revival 3 years ago, once again slammed the proposal.

The veteran lawyer turned lawmaker said the measure is an “affront to human dignity,” arguing there is no available empirical data proving the claim that capital punishment would stop criminals from committing heinous crimes. 

Lagman also said reviving capital punishment would only worsen the culture of impunity in Duterte’s bloody drug war, where thousands of drug suspects have been killed in legitimate police operations and vigilante-style killings. 

“The death penalty desecrates the right to life which is sacrosanct and inviolable, and it is an affront to human dignity… The death penalty exacerbates the culture of violence and its revival adds to the unabated extrajudicial killings consequent to the Duterte administration’s deadly campaign against the drug menace,” Lagman said in a statement on July 31.

Muntinlupa Representative Ruffy Biazon – the first to file a death penalty bill in the current 18th Congress – also believes it is not the right time to pursue the measure.

He said the government should first focus on strengthening evidence-gathering of law enforcement before thinking about the death penalty's return.

“I filed a bill, HB (House Bill) 5408, proposing the establishment of single-party recording in pursuing against drug traffickers. In the United States, this is a widely used tool in the fight against drug trafficking which led to high number of arrests and high percentage of successful prosecution,” Biazon said on August 1.

“The penalty is important. But even before the penalty, a successful prosecution is much more important,” he added .

Senate President Vicente Sotto III already said the death penalty bills would pass only if the punishment is reserved for drug lords

Senator Nancy Binay also said Congress is in no business of talking about the death penalty now that Filipinos are still dying of COVID-19.

Confirmed cases are steadily surging in the country, with the Philippines tallying over 98,000 COVID-19 cases so far. Experts estimate the numbers may go as high as 150,000 by end of August if quarantine measures are not properly implemented. – Rappler.com

Mara Cepeda

Mara Cepeda writes about politics and women’s rights for Rappler. She covers the House of Representatives and the Office of the Vice President. Got tips? Send her an email at mara.cepeda@rappler.com or shoot her a tweet @maracepeda.

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