Monday, June 26, 2006

Abolition of death penalty amidst the slaughter of the innocents

PRESIDENT Arroyo’s signing of the law that abolished capital punishment has been billed by critics as simply a show to please some clerics living in Rome. That may be so, but at least she had the candor to credit Congress with rushing the law that gave her a fitting enough “gift” when she meets the Pope. Now, we join the ranks of countries enlightened enough to realize that the death penalty can never be a proper means for exacting justice—especially in countries like ours where the justice system is still ages away from reforms that ensure the guilty get caught, regardless of their station in life and influence; that they get punished; and that the victims get redress.

That said, while the repeal is something to celebrate about, the truth is that it won’t improve our daily lives just yet. The sense of fear that we feel as we walk the streets day or night, won’t fade away like the hot summer for as long as the country’s law enforcement and judicial system remains ineffective.

Still, on the surface, there seem to be at least three major reasons why we should be happy with the abolition of the death penalty.

First—it’s a worldwide trend. Data from Wikipedia suggest 88 countries, including the Philippines just recently, have abolished capital punishments for all offenses and 11 for all offenses except under special circumstances; 25 others have not used it for at least 10 years while about 72 countries retain it. In the developed world, the United States and Japan still have capital punishment but the Europeans have constantly been castigating them for that.

Second—death penalty has long been used by authoritarian governments worldwide both as an instrument to enforce social order and as well political repression. Sri Lanka recently ended its moratorium on the death penalty while China, Singapore and Iran are still using it regularly. In 2004, for instance, China performed 3,400 executions, accounting for 90 percent of the total. In terms of execution per capita, Singapore has the highest, about 70 hangings a year for a population of only about 4 million. The point here is that we should have forsworn this barbaric a practice long time ago.

Third, it’s just as well we abolished death penalty because our justice system and the law-enforcement agencies are weak and ineffective and it’s highly probable that a significant number of those people convicted of crimes punishable by death are poor and innocent. Many of them are probably victims of frame-up and corrupt lawyers or judges, or simply by harassed bureaucrats who let their cases fall through the huge cracks of the system—thus causing many detention prisoners to suffer for years in periods far exceeding the penalties for their alleged offense, assuming they were guilty.

Still, there’s a huge dark cloud hanging over the initial celebration for repeal of the death-penalty: the unabated killings—with impunity—that have victimized dozens of activists and political followers, journalists and lawyers and judges around the country.

In reality, the death penalty still operates in the land with the continuing deaths of the leftists, crusading journalists, and suspected rebels. And this is the worst kind of “death penalty” as the killers have become the judge, jury, and the executioners. In the court of law, suspects—even defended by the dumbest lawyers—would still have a chance to win acquittal. Under the current political environment, leftists and suspected rebels or rebel sympathizers, are dead men walking—deprived of the chance to argue against the triggerman whose “mission” is only to kill the “enemies of the state.” Add to that climate of impunity the long list of journalists and lawyers and judges who have been killed the past two years, notwithstanding the “shame campaign” to which we have been subjected to by various international human-rights groups and fact-finding teams. These foreign groups cannot reconcile our image as Southeast Asia’s only “real democracy” with the way we allow our activists, journalists and lawyers to be killed so brazenly—and their killers to get away so easily. Imagine, last year the Philippines was billed as the second most dangerous place in the world for journalists to practice in, next only to Iraq.

Meanwhile, to make matters worse, the government has lately warned that citizens who “coddle” rebels and subversives would also be legitimate targets for government troops who are out to run communist rebels to the ground. The reality in the rural areas is that people are often forced to give food and shelter to anybody, especially those who bear arms for fear of reprisals. That would make them targets by government troops who are just too eager to pull the trigger.

The government may have abolished the death penalty officially, but it seems the slaughter will continue for much longer.

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