Vote for death draws nigh

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The leadership of the House of Representatives is mulling over an early vote on the controversial bill reviving the death penalty, amid heated debates and worldwide calls for the legislation to be scrapped.

House Majority Leader Rodolfo C. Fariñas said he will call for a majority caucus on Monday to discuss the possible early voting on the bill, as the lawmakers who opposed the bill continue to question the lack of quorum that delays the sponsorship and debate period.

“As chairman of the Committee on Rules, we will now force to vote on this measure, and we will now close the period [for] debates,” he said.

Earlier, the lower chamber has set on March 8 and 15 to pass on second and third readings, respectively, the bill on capital punishment.

‘Mind vote’

According to Fariñas, lawmakers have already voted in minds, and the leadership is just only accommodating at least 50 interpellators, who want to raise their opposition to the measure.

The bill would allow for the death penalty to be imposed for 21 heinous crimes, including some forms of murder and rape, as well as treason, plunder and nine drug offenses.

According to the bill, the importation, sale, manufacture, cultivation and possession of drugs in quantities as low as 10 grams for methamphetamine and marijuana oil are both punishable by death.

But Speaker Pantaleon D. Alvarez, principal author of the death-penalty bill, said based on the consensus reached by a House supermajority caucus last week, the body will remove the mandatory death penalty.

The Speaker said the supermajority has agreed that the bill reinstating capital punishment should give trial judges the full discretion to mete out either 30-year prison terms or death sentences to persons found guilty of heinous crimes.

Step backward

Meanwhile, members of Congress were joined by their Asean regional counterparts in calling for the legislation to be junked, saying reintroducing the death penalty would mark a significant step backward for the Philippines.

According to the lawmakers, the reimposition of the death penalty will go against the country’s international commitments and will hit hard on marginalized groups, especially the poor.

The capital punishment was last suspended in 2006 by then President and now Lakas Rep. Gloria Arroyo of Pampanga.

“This bill is wrong for the Philippines and wrong for the region. All the evidence suggests that reintroducing capital punishment will have no clear effect on crime, while victimizing poor Filipinos,” Party-list Rep. Tom Villarin of Akbayan said.

“The Philippines has twice abolished the death penalty since the end of the Marcos [regime]. Let us not revive a policy that has not proven to be any deterrence to crime,” he added.

Villarin’s comments were echoed by over a dozen parliamentarians from other Southeast Asian countries, who issued a joint statement in solidarity with their counterparts in the Philippines.

“As lawmakers from across Southeast Asia, we stand opposed to the reintroduction of capital punishment in the Philippines, and we urge our counterparts in the Philippine Congress to reject the bill currently before them that would legalize the practice. We stand shoulder to shoulder with those Philippine legislators who are fighting this bill and support them in their principled struggle, which is based on strong evidence that this policy is wrong for the country,” the statement reads.

Cambodian Member of Parliament (MP) Mu Sochua, who serves as a board member of Asean Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) and was one of the statement’s signatories, said the Philippines’s current stance on capital punishment made it a regional leader and that it should not abandon this position.

“In Cambodia we have been forced to deal with the brutal legacies of state-sanctioned killing, which is why our Constitution—like that of the Philippines—outlawed the death penalty. Abolishing capital punishment was the right choice for the Philippines and for Cambodia. We must move forward as a region, not back,” Mu Sochua said.

Malaysian MP Kasthuri Patto said parliamentarians from across the region believe in the cause of death-penalty abolition, despite the actions of some of their governments.

“Although several Southeast Asian countries—including mine—have yet to abolish the death penalty, there are strong movements that support the goal of abolition among MPs, statesmen and civil society in and around this region. As defenders of human rights, we have looked to the Philippines for guidance in this struggle. We hope that your country will continue to provide this important form of moral leadership for the Asean region and support the right to life,” she said.

“Laws and policies in every Asean country, in relation to human rights, and particularly on the abolition of the death penalty, will naturally have a huge forcible and affirmative snowball effect in the region,” she added.

Morally wrong

Meanwhile, Liberal Party Rep. Teddy Baguilat of Ifugao said if passed and signed into law, it would violate the Philippines’s international legal obligations under the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which the country ratified in 2007 and commits it to the perpetual abolition of capital punishment within its borders.

“At the most basic level, the death penalty is morally wrong and goes against fundamental human rights, including the right to life and the right not to be subjected to cruel and inhuman treatment,” Baguilat said.

He believes the more urgent priority is to reform the justice institutions so that they will safeguard justice, while preventing the spread of a culture of violence.

He said the majority coalition in the House of Representatives, however, is hell-bent on bringing back the death penalty, on grounds that it is supposedly needed to battle the spread of illegal drugs and the rise in criminality.

Rep. Edcel Lagman of Albay urged lawmakers to focus on addressing the root causes of crime and drug use instead of pushing for a revival of the death penalty.

“Particularly given the flaws so obvious today in our criminal justice system, it’s clear that the death penalty is not a sustainable path toward building a safer and more prosperous nation,” he said.

Related legal concerns led last week to the suspension of hearings on the death penalty in the Senate, which is currently considering its own legislation to reintroduce capital punishment.

Defense unit

House Deputy Minority Leader and United Nationalist Alliance Rep. Luis Campos Jr. of Makati City has urged the government to create a capital defense unit (CDU) that would provide topnotch private attorneys to poverty-stricken persons who may be charged with death penalty-eligible offenses in court.

“Assuming Congress decides to revive death verdicts for the worst criminal offenders, the State should, at the very least, guarantee that nobody gets wrongfully doomed on account of his or her simply being poor and unable to obtain superior legal representation,” the lawmaker said.

“We have to ensure that disadvantaged individuals accused of capital felonies receive the best legal defense available,” Campos added.

As proposed by Campos, the CDU would be run by the University of the Philippines College of Law’s Institute of Human Rights and the Integrated Bar of the Philippines, retain highly experienced criminal defense attorneys, and pay for all the legal fees of underprivileged defendants facing potential death sentences.

“Our proposal is the definitive answer to deep fears that only destitute defendants would receive death sentences due to their inability to get effective legal representation,” Campos said.

“We have to acknowledge that, in the real world, getting hold of adequate legal remedies has a price not everybody can pay. This is why the State has to come in and help defend those who have less in life,” he said.