Death for Christmas
All the Duterte administration and its allies in the House of Representatives want for Christmas is… the passage of a bill in Congress reimposing the death penalty. The other day, Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez repeated his assertion that the consolidated version of the several death penalty bills pending in Congress, including House Bill No. 1, which he cofiled, will be approved on third reading before Congress goes on holiday on Dec. 16. “In other words,” opposition Rep. Edcel Lagman told reporters, “the message of the House leadership is: ‘Have a deadly Christmas.’”
The irony is thick: Christmas is when humankind celebrates the birth of He-Who-Saves, and thus the beginning of a religion which teaches its adherents to “turn the other cheek” and which believes in the possibility of redemption. That possibility is a gift that applies to prostitutes and tax collectors, thieves and congressmen, alike.
To be sure, passage in the House does not make it law. We might expect somewhat rougher sailing in the Senate, where multiple measures seeking the reimposition of capital punishment are also pending, but where the outcome is not yet preordained. Senate President Aquilino Pimentel III has not released a statement remotely resembling Alvarez’s disclosure, last October, of his control of his chamber. “I don’t know with the Senate, I don’t control it, but as far as the House is concerned, we will approve it before the Christmas break,” Alvarez said then.
As we have also argued in this space before, the “when” of a death penalty law is unclear but it will definitely take many months, perhaps years. Even if the law is enacted next year, say before the first session of the 17th Congress permanently adjourns, it will be a long time before an official execution can take place. Judgment would have to make its way through the courts, all the way to the Supreme Court. Remember that when the first capital punishment measure became law in 1993, it took six years before the first convict, Leo Echegaray, was put to death in the lethal injection chamber. What is the deterrent value of the death penalty then?
HB 1 emphasizes this deterrent factor not only in widening the scope of heinous crimes, but also in suggesting three forms of execution: by hanging, by firing squad and by lethal injection. Hanging has had a sordid history, and was among the first means discontinued by other countries; it is simply barbaric. The dictator Ferdinand Marcos used the firing squad sparingly but to great effect. Indeed, what the return of these two older forms of execution means is that, under the Duterte administration, the public nature of the executions will become a factor yet again.
The wider scope of the proposed law, which now includes not only drug-related crimes, rape, and kidnapping for ransom but also treason, bribery and plunder, among others, will at first glance seem to answer one of the primary objections to capital punishment. The record proves that death row inmates are mostly poor convicts, especially those who cannot afford good counsel. Surely plunder cannot be committed by the poor? But that’s to assume that in fact the wider scope of heinous crimes will be retained. The House subcommittee that just voted on the death penalty bills this week, however, was split almost down the middle: Six members voted for a wider scope of application; five voted to limit the scope to drugs.
It will come as no surprise to us if the final version of the bill that the House will approve before the members go on holiday will feature a narrower scope of application; lawmakers have been haled to court on plunder charges. What will happen then is that, like the administration’s war on drugs itself, the new measure will be—if not by design then at least by consequence—harsh on paper but hard, only, on the poor. Talk about a Christmas gift.
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