Death creeps at door of error-plagued Philippine justice system

By Arjay L. BalinbinReporter
IN A FEW DAYS, 49-year-old Jun Allego will walk free after spending more than half of his life in jail.
Convicted of robbery with homicide, his 40-year sentence came down to 26 years for good conduct — while in prison, he became a student and teacher, taught karate and was a leader to his fellow inmates.
“His mother and father died while he was in jail and he never got to visit the wake of his brother,” Nene, his 57-year-old wife, said in a July 3 interview.
“He wants to come home on his own so he wants me to give him the key to the house,” she said, trying to hide her excitement.
“He wants to surprise me and our two daughters — they were both ‘made’ in jail — so I told him ‘It’s up to you, but remember that the dogs don’t know you.’”
While the Philippines, which is predominantly Catholic, had the death penalty back then, a moratorium on state killings had been put in place so Mr. Allego didn’t have to worry about dying.
Capital punishment was revived for about a year starting in 1999, only to be suspended again by then President Joseph E. Estrada.
His successor, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, continued the practice, and in 2006 the country abolished the death penalty through a law. Before that, she cut the death sentences of 1,230 inmates to life imprisonment, which Amnesty International said was the “largest ever commutation of death sentences.”
That’s about to change if President Rodrigo R. Duterte will have his way.
The tough-talking leader has asked Congress to revive capital punishment for drug trafficking, plunder and other heinous crimes.
Several bills in both houses of Congress will soon be tabled for hearings.
Restoring capital punishment is certain given the sheer number of Mr. Duterte’s political allies in both the Senate and House of Representatives, Louie C. Montemar, a sociology professor from the Polytechnic University of the Philippines, said in an e-mail.
“Let us remember that the death penalty used to be with us despite opposition by the Catholic Church,” he said.
There is also strong public opinion for its return so “I really do not see anything beyond a massive civil society movement against it that could turn the tide.”
International rights groups warned that restoring capital punishment might tarnish the Philippines’ global image and affect trade and investments.
The European Union is reluctant to engage in deeper trade talks with the Philippines because it does not want to be associated with Mr. Duterte’s bloody war on drugs, said Phil Robertson, deputy director at Human Rights Watch Asia.
He also said Filipinos criticize the judicial system for its failures “so it’s hard to see why anyone would want to place issues of life and death in that system’s hands.”
“Research from all over the world shows that the death penalty does not serve as an effective deterrent to crime but it does undermine whatever remaining confidence exists in the Judiciary,” he added.
The Supreme Court in a 2004 decision admitted that out of 907 capital punishment appeals elevated to it for automatic review, 72% or 651 people in death row were saved from lethal injection after their wrongful conviction.
Amnesty International said the risks of judicial error are “almost certain” especially with reports of police planting evidence and using torture to get confessions from suspected criminals.
The death penalty continues to be applied inconsistently, with the poor suffering the most, AI human rights officer Wilnor Papa said. “This includes limited access to legal representation or being at a greater disadvantage in their experience of the criminal justice system.”
But Dante L. Jimenez, who heads the Volunteers Against Crime and Corruption, argued that capital punishment would deter politicians from stealing money and common people from committing heinous crimes.
“Capital punishment is the solution so that people will not take the law into their own hands,” Mr. Jimenez, whose brother was murdered in 1990, said. “What will you do as a parent if your daughter was raped and thrown like garbage?”
“My message to the church is focus on spiritual advice and do not meddle in state initiatives because that is wrong,” he said.
Nene, mentioned at the outset, thanks the government for giving her husband a second chance. “I am deeply thankful that there was no death penalty back then,” she said. “Jun will have a chance to see the light and will be turning over a new leaf. He’s a better person now since he came to know God.”