MANILA -- President Rodrigo Duterte’s renewed push to restore capital punishment may come at a huge political cost compromising his government’s ability to appeal for Filipino workers on death row abroad, an international human rights group warned Friday.
In Malaysia alone, at least 48 Filipinos were facing the death penalty as of March this year. A Filipino woman was arrested earlier this week for allegedly trafficking illegal drugs in Kota Kinabalu.
“Ultimately, the Philippines is going to pay a very, very high political price around the world if it decides” to revive the death penalty, said Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division.
The Philippine government’s ability to negotiate for its citizens on death row, he said, would be “significantly diminished” because other countries could now argue that “you guys kill people, too.”
“They would be accused of being hypocrites,” he told ANC.
A foreign affairs department report for 2016 showed 130 Filipinos were awaiting execution abroad, mostly due to illegal drugs.
Domestic worker Mary Jane Veloso was earlier convicted of smuggling heroin in Indonesia, but was granted reprieve in 2015. A Philippine court is still hearing a criminal case against her recruiters, who allegedly duped her into working as a drug mule.
Previous requests by the Philippine government to save its citizens on death row were granted partly because other countries knew that Manila had abolished capital punishment, said former human rights chief Loretta Ann Rosales.
“We will now lose our moral ascendancy,” she told ABS-CBN News. “This is what our senators and congressmen should remember.”
Duterte wants to restore death penalty at a time when at least 142 countries have already abolished it “in law or practice” as of 2017, according to human rights group Amnesty International.
“Is (The Philippines) going to be one of the nations in the world to turn its back and buck the trend around the world that is moving toward the abolition of death penalty?” Robertson said.
The president sees capital punishment as a crucial component in his war against illegal drugs, which has killed at least 5,526 suspects in police operations.
“That’s a small number if you will consider the complexity of the entire drug menace, which destroys families,” his spokesman Salvador Panelo said over ANC’s “Matters of Fact” podcast.
Rosales said restoring the death penalty would “legitimize” widespread killings under Duterte, giving them “a semblance of rule and order.”
“What he does are mass killings (and) he’s gotten so much criticism (for) that. So what he does now is to say, ‘Okay, let’s have the death penalty. At least, there’s due process there,’” she said.
The Philippine constitution bans the death penalty “unless for compelling reasons involving heinous crimes.”
Duterte sought the capital punishment for high-level drug traffickers and plunderers, a proposal backed by many of his allies in Congress.
But the Philippines is also a signatory, along with 87 other countries, to the “Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,” noted Rosales.
State parties to the agreement committed to “take all necessary measures to abolish the death penalty within its jurisdiction,” which Manila did in 2006.
Prior to that, the Philippines executed 7 of its citizens through lethal injection during the Estrada administration.
Rosales said “international law and norm should prevail” even if the 1987 constitution allows Congress to restore capital punishment for heinous crimes.
“The constitution is nebulous,” she said.
LIFE AND DEATH
Human rights groups have cautioned the Philippines against restoring the death penalty, given serious loopholes in its criminal justice system.
A 2004 Supreme Court ruling, for instance, noted that 7 out of 10 cases of capital punishment it reviewed since 1993 were either “modified or vacated.”
In a 2012 decision, the high court said 56 percent of drug cases led to dismissal and acquittal “because of the failure of the police authorities to observe proper procedure under the law.” The cases covered 5 years since the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act took effect.
“You have a very high rate of acquittal and dismissal and you’re going to pass a death penalty bill in the context of a criminal justice system, which does not seem to work,” said Maria Socorro Diokno, secretary general of the Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG).
Robertson warned that reinstating capital punishment would mean “handing the power of life and death to justice system that everybody likes to criticize.”