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The Opinion Pages | OP-ED CONTRIBUTOR

Duterte Wants the Death Penalty Back


MANILA — President Rodrigo Duterte is taking his brutal campaign against drugs from the
streets to the halls of Congress.

He had said he would be “happy to slaughter” drug addicts, and since he took office in
June, some 7,000 people have been killed in drug-related operations, according to the
Philippine National Police. Now he proposes to reinstate the death penalty, which was
abolished here in 2006.

A new bill, up for discussion in the House of Representatives this week, proposes to restore
capital punishment for 21 so-called heinous crimes. Those include treason, some forms of
murder and rape, and violent car thefts — as well as nine drug offenses. If the act passes, the
import, sale, manufacture, cultivation or possession of drugs, even in quantities as low as 10
grams for methamphetamines or marijuana oil, will all be punishable by death.

With Congress now back in session, the proposal could pass the full House in a matter of
weeks. To become law, the bill would then have to be approved by the Senate and be signed
by the president.

It must be stopped now.

The Philippines’s history with the death penalty is painful and complicated. Spanish
colonizers used it to put down uprisings in the late 1800s; Ferdinand Marcos, the dictator
who ruled the country for two decades, used it to instill fear, sometimes by broadcasting

Just a year after Mr. Marcos’s ouster in 1986, the Philippines became the first country in
Asia to abolish capital punishment. The death penalty was reinstated in 1993, in response to
the perception that crime was on the rise. It was abolished again in 2006, after a sustained
campaign by a broad coalition including the Catholic Church and human rights groups. In
2007, the Philippines ratified the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on
Civil and Political Rights, committing itself under international law to renounce capital

Mr. Duterte wants it back anyway. But what will an administration that openly condones
extrajudicial killings do with state-sanctioned executions? The president has reportedly
announced that he wants to put “five or six” prisoners to death every day if capital
punishment is reinstated.
And the Philippines’s previous experiences with the death penalty show that its application
has been excessive, ridden with errors and unfair to marginalized populations.

Death sentences were handed out liberally in the past. Thanks to lobbying by the Church and
others, only a few executions took place, but in 2006, when capital punishment was abolished
(again), at least 1,200 individuals were on death row in the Philippines.

Judicial mistakes and other irregularities were legion. In its 2004 decision in The People of
the Philippines v. Efren Mateo y Garcia, the Supreme Court noted that death sentences had
been wrongly imposed in nearly 72 percent of the 907 death-penalty cases it had reviewed
since 1993. In a 2004 study, more than 45 percent of inmates on death row claimed to have
been tortured by the police.

Capital punishment has a disproportionate impact on the poor: More than 73 percent of
people on death row before 2006 earned less than 10,000 pesos a month (the equivalent of
about $190 then), according to the Free Legal Assistance Group, a local NGO. The poor are
particularly vulnerable to wrongful convictions and other problems because they can rarely
afford to hire competent lawyers.

Minors and the mentally handicapped are also at risk, despite protections written into the
law. Reports by Amnesty International and the Commission on Human Rights of the
Philippines from the late 1990s and early 2000s found that, due to poor record-keeping and
police procedures, several death-row inmates had been minors at the time of their alleged
crimes. Marlon Parazo, a deaf-mute and mentally challenged man, was sentenced to death in
1995 even though he had not been capable of understanding the charges or the proceedings
against him. His sentence was eventually overturned thanks to pressure from human rights
groups, but there is no way to know for sure how many other disabled prisoners have been
wrongfully convicted.

There is also no reason to think that these fundamental flaws in the Philippines’s criminal
justice system have been fixed. Discrimination and lack of due process in criminal cases
remain serious concerns. Corruption is rampant.

And then there is the broader question of effectiveness, and whether capital punishment
actually deters crime. In 1999, when the first executions since the end of the Marcos era took
place, the number of crimes reported nationwide increased by more than 15 percent. In 2007,
after the death penalty was abolished, reported crimes dropped by more than 7 percent.

It’s possible to be tough on crime without capital punishment. On the other hand, given the
judicial system’s flaws and the current political climate, reinstating it today would be like
encouraging state-sanctioned murder. Members of the Philippine Congress, the Church and
human rights groups here and abroad must rally to block this bill: No death penalty in the

Tomasito Villarin is a member of the House of Representatives of the Philippines from the Akbayan
Citizens’ Action Party and a member of Asean Parliamentarians for Human Rights.

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