Two Philippine senators are working on separate bills to restore the death penalty. And right now, they have every chance of getting one of them signed into law. For while Western media, civil liberties and human rights organisations, along with populist politicians across Europe, North America and Australia issue their condemnation, asking how such a development could be possible in the 21st century, back in the Philippines the mood is very different. There they want hard justice, and they want it now.
As for why there is that mood, that’s simple. Right across the country, life in the barangays, for most residents, is extremely precarious and extremely stressful. These are dangerous, desperate and depressing places. They have nothing in common with the 8.4 square miles of the capital’s central business and high-end residential district, Makati. Even in the context of Metro Manila, that oasis is as incongruous as a lacquered display case in a hovel.
Understandably, it’s difficult for someone living in Tribeca, Lower Manhattan, or London’s Spitalfields today, to get a perspective on this. But oddly, those places – if they could speak – would know better than most why the 120,000 slum-residents of Payatas barangay, in Quezon City’s 2nd district, for example, will be praying that the senators can run a death-penalty bill all the way to the president’s desk.
The Philippines’ present-day urban landscape is a throwback to New York’s Lower East Side and London’s East End of the 1890s. It mirrors exactly the same problems they had – rampant unemployment, rampant poverty, rampant addiction, rampant crime, rampant violence – and the same human misery. It even looks the same – no semblance or urban planning, an abandoned clutter of broken properties on broken streets with open sewers and rotting garbage, where grimey children skip and addicts stagger. The only thing that changes for this story is the date line.
ANY CITY/ANY TOWN, Philippines, 4 July 2016 – In the Philippines last year, there was a murder every 54 minutes, a rape every 51 minutes and a robbery every 16 minutes. These were the stark facts documented by the Philippine National Police (PNP) Directorate for Investigation and Detective Management and delivered to the public by former PNP chief, Senator Panfilo Lacson. In 2015, he reported, there were 9,646 murders, 10,298 rapes and 31,741 robberies across the country. Seventy five percent of the worst crimes were drug related.
Lacson and fellow senator, Vicente Sotto III, are working on separate bills designed to reintroduce capital punishment for a number of crimes including, murder, rape, terrorism, drug-related offences and human trafficking. Other crimes being considered for capital-offence status are: carnapping, illegal recruitment, kidnapping and serious illegal detention, robbery, qualified piracy, qualified bribery, destructive arson, treason and plunder.
The death penalty was suspended in the 1987 Constitution under President Corazon Aquino but was re-imposed by President Fidel V. Ramos in 1994 following an upsurge in crime (though that was nothing like what’s happening right now). It was suspended again in 2006 by President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and became one of the fastest pieces of legislation ever to go through Congress. Pressure from the powerful Roman Catholic Church – 82% of the population is Catholic – and an upcoming visit to Vatican City to meet Pope Benedict XVI, put the bill in the fast lane. “We yield to the high moral imperative dictated by God to walk away from capital punishment,” she said at the time.
Certainly, Arroyo wanted to appease the bishops who, up until her final fall from grace, had given her their blessing. One theory at the time was that it was part of a strategy to get the Church to soften its stance on mining, a sector which Arroyo wanted to open up and which the Church was rigorously, then – and remains – opposed to.
President Rodrigo Duterte, himself, is keen to reinstate capital punishment. Elder statesman Ramos, is one of his close political advisers. Unlike the Congressmen who favour lethal injection as the means of execution, Duterte would prefer death by hanging.
So the precedent cannot be disputed; there are no Constitutional problems with bringing it back; the Catholic Church is not an issue as far as appeasement is concerned – Duterte doesn’t need its patronage (and anyway, its influence has waned considerably in the last decade); the 16,601,997 Filipinos who handed Duterte the presidency on 9 May also handed him a blank cheque to eradicate crime by whatever means he sees fit; international condemnation will be shrugged off as the closer-contact countries within Southeast Asia, fellow Asian members, will either support the move or remain diplomatically silent on the issue. The death penalty is still carried out in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam, and remains on the books in Brunei, Thailand, Laos and Myanmar. And the Philippines’ big neighbour to the north, China, carries it out routinely.