On 6 June, both the Philippine Senate and the House of Representatives voted to repeal death penalty legislation. Philippines now joins the worldwide trend toward abolition of the death penalty and is the 125th nation to become abolitionist in law or practice.
In 1987 the Philippines set an historic precedent by becoming the first Asian country in modern times to abolish the death penalty for all crimes. However, the death penalty was reintroduced in late 1993 for 46 different offences. The death penalty was reinstated, not because it was a just punishment but because it was a high profile and desperate remedy to quench public anger at the rising tide of unchecked crime. Executions resumed in 1999 until former President Estrada in 2000 announced a moratorium on executions, which President Arroyo has continued, in practice, throughout her presidency.
On 15 April 2006 President Arroyo commuted all death sentences to life imprisonment in what is believed to be the largest ever commutation of death sentences in modern times. Four days later, President Arroyo marked as urgent, legislation to repeal the death penalty.
House of Representatives
By a vote of 119-20, the House of Representatives approved on a third and final reading Tuesday night, 6th June, the measure abolishing the death penalty in the country.
Speaker Jose de Venecia, who presided as the final vote was taken said the measure is a step that restores the sanctity of human life in the way the country dispenses justice. “We have taken this courageous decision because we believe in the sanctity of human life and in the value of justice not as an act of retribution. This is the mark of a higher civilization.”
“The penalty of life imprisonment is just as harsh as the death penalty,” said Deputy Speaker Raul del Mar, who was a member of the 9th Congress that had approved the death penalty.
Sixteen senators voted for the abolition and one abstained.
Senate Minority Leader Aquilino Pimentel Jr. said that the Death Penalty Law has no place in a Christian nation like the Philippines.Senator Sergio Osmena III stressed that the Death Penalty Law proved that it was not a successful deterrent against heinous crimes.Earlier, in a co-sponsorship speech on the abolition of the death penalty, Senator Richard J. Gordon, chairman of the Senate Committee on Constitutional Amendments, Revision of Codes and Laws, declared that he supports “the abolition of the death penalty at the present time,” but does so rather” haltingly and hesitatingly” and voted “to abolish the death penalty albeit temporarily.”Gordon, himself a victim of grievous crimes when his father was assassinated and his niece brutally killed, stated that he is doing so “not just to be merciful but to be just”. ”It is so easy to kill a person to bring him to justice, but the lifetime suffering of a nation when it finds out that it has made a mistake is indelible,” he added.
Reasons behind abolition
The bill gave weight to the argument that death penalty is “not a deterrent to crime” and that “judicial error” is a possibility in all justice systems. It cited several other reasons for abolishing the death penalty, among them the following:
· death penalty is retributive justice, therefore vengeful and barbaric;
· it is the ultimate cruel and inhuman punishment;
· it is irrevocable;
· it shuts out rehabilitative justice;
· it raises the likelihood of criminals becoming more violent for fear of being convicted by death sentence; and
· it is anti-poor
The measure’s proponents also argued the Philippines is violating international treaties, covenants and policies by “mere implementation” of the death penalty.The death penalty abolition affirms what the government is already practicing since President Arroyo’s administration has not carried out a single execution.
The Philippine debate on the Death Penalty shows a remarkably clear discernment of the moral and practical issues involved. The rejection of the motive of retributive justice is rightly placed at the head of the list of motivation. The ancient appeal for retribution in the saying: “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” is rejected as vengeful and barbaric. This is at the heart of the matter and it is not a matter of logic but of an informed moral sense. The Philippines has gone through a fine analysis of the balance between killing and being killed in retribution, to come to the realization that they are not equal. The appropriate balance to killing is indeed punishment, but a punishment which allows for repentance, reform, and rehabilitation. We are not God, we did not create life, and having the power to take life away does not give us the right to do so.
The objection of the Philippine lawmakers that the death penalty is irrevocable refers to wrongful convictions:
Of the 1205 inmates on the Philippines’ “death row”, many have been wrongfully convicted according to human rights groups representing some of them. Only 230 of these convictions have been affirmed by the Supreme Court. One study citing a decision of the Supreme Court in July 2003 showed that the lower regional trial courts had close to a 72 per cent wrong conviction rate. In reviewing 907 death penalty cases, the Court admitted that 26 were dismissed, 555 modified, 65 acquitted, and 31 remanded. This underlines just how flawed is the system of justice in the Philippines.Most death penalty sentences are unsafe and those convicted are overwhelming the poor and unable to hire a lawyer. The public defender, no matter how dedicated, is inexperienced, under trained, has no resources or help to investigate the circumstances and uncover evidence that would exonerate his client and expose lies. Convictions are handed down despite the preponderance of reasonable doubt. The rich have the best of lawyers, power and influence, bribe officials and police, and scare off witnesses. They almost never get convicted.
The Philippines is very aware of problems raised by the commutation of execution to life imprisonment:
Arroyo urged religious leaders to help the government in the moral and spiritual transformation of convicts, particularly those serving maximum jail terms, who could not be given parole.The government will work on improving the country’s jail facilities to create an environment that is more conducive to the prisoners’ rehabilitation and reformation, she said.
Instead of death, the penalty is downgraded to life imprisonment without parole, under the Senate version.
Arroyo explained that convicts in the death row will be commuted to reclusion perpetua but they can still get the President’s pardon.
The farsightedness of Arroyo in leaving open a gate of hope to those condemned to permanent imprisonment is truly visionary. In a striking development, French prisoners whose death sentences had been commuted to perpetual imprisonment recently pleaded for execution to be restored as a better alternative to endless jail sentence. Human beings cannot live without hope and the humanity of the Philippine legislation shows remarkable understanding.
The acknowledgment of a Christian inspiration to the abolition is noteworthy. All religions claim to be inspired by the concept of mercy. Would that the nations of Asia learn a lesson from the heroic initiative of our neighbour country, finding a similar inspiration in their own religious traditions, to abrogate the hateful and barbaric practice of capital punishment.
Danthong Breen is president of the Union for Civil Liberty
Special to The Nation, Saturday 17th June