The silence that kills | Inquirer Opinion
Editorial

The silence that kills

/ 12:11 AM July 11, 2014

The Supreme Court couldn’t have been more prophetic. “This is not the first fraternity-related case to come to this court; neither will it be the last.” Indeed not.

The decision was dated May 5, 2014, and affirms the conviction of fraternity men for the murder committed in a rumble at the University of the Philippines 20 years ago. But less than two months later, an 18-year-old College of St. Benilde student will die after undergoing hazing by the Tau Gamma Phi fraternity. A screen-capture of a security video is chilling; it shows his body being pulled by the leg like a carcass in an abattoir. Sadly, reports show that more than a week before his death, a 17-year-old UP student almost lost his life in the hands of the Upsilon Sigma Phi fraternity. Had those reports surfaced sooner, perhaps that 18-year-old’s life could have been saved, and he would go on to pursue his dreams and that of his parents.

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Justice Marvic Leonen, the ponente of the May 2014 decision, in an unprecedented public statement, minced no words in reaction to the two hazing reports. “Impunity for violence thrives in a climate of unjustified silence and illicit transactions sub rosa (in secrecy). … [W]e contribute to an environment that creates the perpetrator by our silence.”

Leonen is correct. It is the silence that speaks more loudly and makes us all willing accomplices in this barbarity. We had all thought, after the hazing death of Lenny Villa in the hands of the Aguila Legis fraternity at the Ateneo de Manila Law School and after the national outrage that led to the passage of the Anti-Hazing Law, that these senseless deaths would be a thing of the past. Now we realize, with 20 years’ hindsight, that revising the legal prohibitions is not enough if those entrusted with their enforcement remain reticent and timorous.

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The best proof, ironically, is the Lenny Villa case itself. Several of the accused were eventually acquitted by the Supreme Court because the criminal case moved so slowly that, the Court held, the right of the accused to a speedy trial was violated. The accused were arraigned in 1993 (two years after Villa’s death), but the first trial date was not until 2005, a good 12 years later. Worse, while the trial court convicted several of them of homicide, the charges were eventually downgraded to mere “reckless imprudence resulting in homicide.” Public outrage had fizzled out by the time the verdict was handed down.

The Court itself noted that the case had not deterred this dark tradition of consensual torture. It noted: “Sadly, the Lenny Villa tragedy did not discourage hazing activities in the country. Within a year of his death, six more cases of hazing-related deaths emerged ….”

The new law aimed to plug the loopholes in the existing rules. Of course, killing and hurting innocent people have long been punishable under the Revised Penal Code. But the accused in hazing cases had historically relied on the bizarre circumstances under which the hurt is caused. Both the victim and his beastly “masters” are voluntary participants, since the victims are, so to speak, willingly led to the slaughter. There is no intent to kill or maim, just to test the “neophyte’s” commitment to join the organization.

To their credit, the drafters of the Anti-Hazing Law wised up to that defense, and created the crime of hazing under a “special law.” By that sleight of hand, the mere commission of the prohibited acts became punishable, and there is no need to prove mens rea, or “a guilty or wrongful purpose or criminal intent.” The victim’s consent is no longer a defense, and neither is the torturer’s benign but still benighted intent merely to test the neophyte. Finally, under the Anti-Hazing Law, it is no longer necessary to prove conspiracy lest only those who actually dealt the injurious blows are held liable, while those who cheer on the “fists of fury” go scot-free. Today, mere presence during the hazing ritual is enough.

But clearly, the Anti-Hazing Law isn’t enough. What we need even more is an anti-hazing culture. The Anti-Hazing Law has reduced the opportunities for legal trickery in defense of this feudal practice, except for the first trick in the book, which is to keep the incident secret, away from the police, away from the courts. Only our sustained public vigilance and media attention will protect us against those who would sweep these cases under the rug.

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TAGS: Aguila Legis fraternity, anti-hazing law, Ateneo de Manila Law School, College of St. Benilde, Fraternity, hazing, lenny villa, Marvic Leonen, Supreme Court, Tau Gamma Phi
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