Bumpy road for capital punishment: Lawmakers, government officials divided

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines) — It's not going to be easy for advocates of the restoration of capital punishment in the country — as deliberations begin on the proposed bill seeking to reimpose the death penalty, there are signs that lawmakers and government officials are divided on the issue. This was evident in the Senate's first hearing on the proposed measure on Tuesday.

In an interview with Senate Committee on Justice and Human Rights chairman Richard Gordon, he said only 10 among 24 senators are in favor of the restoration of death penalty — so far.

In his speech, bill author Sen. Manny Pacquiao said, the country is facing immense challenges from drug trafficking and drug abuse — and that "the problem has grown into emergency situation that now merits urgent action."

Pacquiao pointed out, the Constitution itself gives legislature the authority to allow the revival of the death penalty.

"Unless for compelling reasons involving heinous crimes, the congress shall act or provide for it," Pacquiao said citing constitutional provision on death penalty.

"It is of my humble opinion that our current problem over heinous crimes related to the trafficking and abuse of dangerous drugs falls within the bounds of this constitutional limitation."

Pacquiao added, it is imperative for lawmakers to determine what heinous crimes are punishable by death penalty.

"To bundle mini-crimes will dilute arguments and complicate definitions in determining whether a particular crime is heinous or not because the offensive acts may be of different characters," Pacquiao said.

"We cannot allow the compelling nature of imposing death penalty on drug trafficking to be weighed down by less compelling reasons for other offenses."

"We have to take a firm stand against drug traffickers. On a personal level, I can forgive. However, the heinous crime of drug trafficking is committed not just against a person but against the nation," he added.

As early as now, some senators have already expressed that they are against the proposed measure.

Sen. Leila De Lima said "Death penalty is wrong — on legal, moral, ethical, and constitutional grounds."

While Sen. Riza Hontiveros said capital punishment has a disproportionate impact on the poor.

"On such a flawed and biased justice system that we still have, there is little guarantee that innocent people would not be sentenced to death," Hontiveros said.

"Pinapipili nila tayo [They are making us choose] between extrajudicial killing and judicial killing… Katulad ng extrajudicial killings, ang kaya lamang nito patayin ay ang mga mahihirap," she added. [Like extrajudicial killings, it can only kill the poor.]

Hontiveros also said death penalty "is a cruel and inhuman form of punishment that gives up on the rehabilitative purpose of the justice system."

Meanwhile, Sen. Sotto said he is willing to forego of other crimes included in his proposed measure, and focus only on high-level drug trafficking or manufacturing.

He said, with this, the "anti-poor card will not fly."

"There is no drug lord na mahirap. Lahat ng drug lords mayaman," Sotto said. [There is no poor drug lord. All drug lords are wealthy.]

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Watch: Lower House begins debates on death penalty

Government agencies divided

Even if it is President Rodrigo Duterte himself who endorsed the restoration of capital punishment to lawmakers, government agencies are not in the same page when it comes to the issue.

The Department of Justice (DOJ) reiterated the support for the imposition of death penalty for heinous crimes.

DOJ Senior Deputy State Prosecutor Atty. Richard Anthony Fadullon said the department does not interpose any constitutional or legal objections on the proposed measure.

"Having seen the effects of the fight on the war on drugs in the number of surrenderees and the number of victims we've had, the number of people affected by the drug problem in the country is a reason for us to reconsider the reopening of the debates on the re-imposition of the death penalty," Fadullon said.

"It is not a question simply of deterrence, but a question of one, whether there are compelling reasons that exist to consider the re-imposition," he added.

Fadullon also said there have only been seven executions in 1998 and it was not enough to determine if capital punishment in the country would be a deterrent to heinous crimes or not.

Law enforcement agencies such the Philippine National Police (PNP) and Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) agreed and said it is high time to restore death penalty.

PNP's Directorate for Investigation and Detective Management Police Dir. Augusto Marquez Jr. said there is an increasing trend of heinous crimes such as murder, rape and violation of RA 9165.

"The PNP believes that the restoration of the death penalty will be a big first step geared towards the prevention of the commission of heinous crimes," Marquez noted.

While PDEA Deputy Director General for Administration Jesus Fajardo admits despite their efforts, "the menace of the illegal drug trade remain[s] unabated."

"Since the death penalty was abolished in the country, the Chinese drug traffickers made the Philippines a haven of their illegal drug activities because they are sure not to suffer death penalty," Fajardo said.

Meanwhile, the Social Welfare Department expressed disapproval on the restoration of capital punishment.

They noted capital punishment is cruel, degrading, inhuman, and anti-poor.

Volunteers Against Crime and Corruption (VACC) legal counsel Ferdinand was quick at rebutting DSWD, saying framers of the Constitution had foreseen the need to revive death penalty.

He said it is well within the concept of "retribution" in the justice system, "not only to protect the innocent and to punish the guilty - but to restore balance in society."

Topacio pointed out, if the government does not impose the necessary retribution, "then will arise the feeling that there is a drastic and dramatic failure in the criminal justice system."

Also read: Archbishop Socrates Villegas urges Filipinos to oppose death penalty

De Lima vs. Topacio

Like any other hearing on controversial bills, there were a few skirmishes during the discussions.

Volunteers against Crime and Corruption legal counsel Ferdinand Topacio said they filed a case against Sen. Leila De Lima in connection with the drug operations in New Bilibid Prisons — and this clearly angered the senator.

"Atty. Topacio here while not in very expressed terms, just called me a drug trafficker. I want him to take that back," De Lima said.

In which Topacio replied: "Your honor, with all due respect, I did no such thing. In fact, the transcript of the records will bear me out when I say that whether those charges may be proven or not, we do not know. These are allegations your honor."

De Lima furiously told Topacio, "I'm not a drug trafficker."

The discussion on death penalty eventually came to a halt when Senator Frank Drilon, who opposes the restoration of the death penalty, raised a concern regarding the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

It is an international agreement that states that the death penalty should not be imposed in countries that signed the covenant.

Drilon said that the Philippines,  as a signatory in the covenant, could possibly face consequences if capital punishment will be restored.

The hearing is suspended until DOJ submits a position paper next month.

CNN Philippines' Cecille Lardizabal contributed to this report.