The Death Penalty, a Weapon of Power

Fr. Shay Cullen

The Philippines is known for its culture of happy, friendly people with a love of life. Family bonds are strong, respect for the aged is high, concern for the poor is widespread. The sacredness of life is enshrined in the constitution and in-laws protecting the people. The value of life is ingrained in the conscience of the nation. Murder and killing are wrong and evil, all know it, yet there is a dark shadow, a force that diminishes society. It is a dangerous force that makes its own rules and enforces them in a way that keeps millions of Filipinos in fear and dire poverty.

That force is a corrupt political system that has endured since the days of the Spanish conquest and American colonialism and has perpetuated the rule of irresponsible dynastic family lawmakers and politicians. They rule through fear and threats to the life and security of the people. Martial law is one measure of control to perpetuate an economy of the rich where an estimated .0001 percent own or control 70 percent of the wealth. It is an economy run on low wages and society of shocking inequality and social injustice. Millions of Filipinos go abroad seeking high paying jobs. Society is like an island of luxury condos in a sea of slum hovels.

The death penalty is another measure of control. It will largely be symbolic but a threat nevertheless. There are 19 bills filed in Congress to revoke the law banning the death penalty.  The informal death penalty is already present on our streets through extrajudicial killings. The Philippine National Police (PNP) has records showing its operatives killed as many as 6,700 suspects since 2016 in so-called shoot-outs of drug pushers and users. The campaign is part of the enforcement of the war-on-drugs and thrives on a culture of impunity and fear.

The police blame rampant vigilante death squads for many more extrajudicial killings but deny any connection to them. Some commentators say as many as 28,000 suspects have been killed. There have been very few arrests and no convictions of vigilante death squad members. The piles of bodies are evidence of that as they administer the death penalty daily. Evidence that some police themselves are involved at the highest level in recycling and selling 160 kilos of seized drugs is a major challenge to the anti-drug president himself. The chief of the PNP has resigned.

There is no point in reviving the death penalty other than to justify in law that killing is a legitimate way to address social problems. The poor will be victimized by such a revived law. They are easily framed up, they take the blame for rich killers and they cannot afford lawyers to defend themselves from false charges.

The death penalty is an inhumane cruel punishment. It is vengeance-seeking and not all victims of crimes want revenge by taking life. The innocent are often wrongly condemned. With the introduction of DNA testing of evidence, over a hundred convicts on death row in the US were proven innocent and set free.

However, the death penalty for heinous crimes like child rape will preclude repentance and the child sex abuser will escape justice because the child will be reluctant to testify against him if he will be put to death on her word. This is especially true when the rapist is the biological father or the stepfather of the victim. The family of the child will pressure her not to testify. They will blame her for putting her and their father to death. He will go free and abuse many more children most likely. A research study will surely show that when there was a death penalty in the Philippines before it was abolished in 2006, there were fewer convictions of child rapists.

Besides, the death penalty deprives the accused, if truly guilty, of a chance to repent and reform. Killing another degrades the sacred value of life and the dignity of the human person.

With death squads killing people daily, Filipino lives are already degraded and life is so devoid of value. They are semi-official executioners, it seems, riding in tandem, on motorcycles. They shoot to kill and do so without fear of apprehension or accountability. The tough talk response against crime enforced by death squads and the death penalty and martial law in Mindanao conditions people to accept the inevitable, rule by the elite and the unabated destructive, exploitation of natural resources.

It curbs subversion. No matter how miserable are the lives of the six million people in extreme poverty or the other six million below the poverty line, they are intimidated and un-empowered to demand a more decent life of dignity. They will not rebel against those with the guns and the hangman’s rope. It is no wonder then that there are surveys that place the president’s approval rating at 80 percent.

It is a situation that sends a chill through all freedom-loving people. This creates a cloud of fear and subservience, a deterrent to protesting social injustice and demands for political reform. Prophetic voices denunciating corruption can be silenced. The democratic space to demonstrate, to exercise freedom of expression and active non-violent movements can be and are curtailed. However, President Rodrigo Duterte wants to reinstate the death penalty. The president said he wants to hang six people a day. In reference to the death penalty, he said, “Restore it and I will execute criminals every day- five or six. That’s for real.” Of course, he was just joking. The hit squad is quicker.

The death penalty law, if passed, will deter no one from committing a crime but will damage the reputation of the Philippines as it will violate international treaties already entered into. Besides, it will deprive children of justice and allow child rapists to go free and abuse again. We must oppose it with all our strength.

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