Political Tidbits is the prestigious column of Belinda Olivares-Cunanan that ran for 25 continuous years in the op-ed page of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the newspaper that she helped put up with its multi-awarded founder, the legendary Eugenia Duran-Apostol, in December 1985, just two months before the EDSA Revolution.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Despite Christmas---or maybe because it’s Christmas, the Season of Grace and 2000th anniversary of the Birth of CHRIST who is Life---it’s imperative to take a hard look at the House of Representatives’ impending move to ram through the revival of death penalty, allegedly to curb rising criminality. But let's take a harder look at The Netherlands, how it has shut down 19 prisons---FOR LACK OF INMATES! It must be doing something we aren’t.

Even as it’s just a few days to Christmas, during which we celebrate the birthday of Jesus Christ, the Redeemer who came into this world as a helpless baby 2000 years ago, the world is once again confronted by grim realities that contradict the spirit of goodwill worldwide. I commiserate with all those folks who were just out doing the beautiful Christmas market in downtown Berlin (such markets in Europe are always so fabulous) when a truck plowed into the teeming crowds---killing a dozen people and injuring many others. As I write this piece in this uncertain world of ours, it appears that this ghastly Berlin episode was an act of terrorism.  

Also labeled an act of terrorism by the UN was yesterday’s brutal slaying of the Russian ambassador to Ankara while attending the opening of an art exhibit of Russian photographs in the Turkish capital, the largest city after Istanbul. The gunman was identified as a police riot squad officer who shouted “Don’t forget Aleppo! Don’t forget Syria!” before he was shot dead by police after refusing to surrender. Russian President Vladimir Putin termed the cold-blooded murder of his envoy in Ankara an act to sabotage the rapprochement between Moscow and Ankara to resolve the conflict in Syria that’s currently being brokered by Russia, Turkey and Iran.


With these two bloody episodes abroad as background, it is ALMOST INCONGRUOUS here to raise this blogger’s objection to the administration’s plan to revive the death penalty that was first outlawed in the 1987 Constitution under President Cory Aquino. Recall that the Philippines became the first Asian country to abolish it for all crimes, with all death sentences at that time reduced to reclusion perpetua or life imprisonment. But raise our objections at this time we must or we should, AS CHRISTMAS IS A CELEBRATION OF LIFE.  My radio partner Cecile Guidote Alvarez and I decided---as a way to celebrate the birth of the Christ Child--- to focus on an issue against Life: the official snuffing of life by the state.  

We invited to our dzRH program last Sunday one of the foremost pro-Life members of the House of Representatives, who’s leading the stand vs. the death penalty there:  Buhay party-list Rep. Joselito Atienza, former mayor of Manila and former assemblyman. While there’s expectation that pro-administration solons, led by House Committee on Justice chair Reynaldo V. Umali of Mindoro, would ram through its revival after the Christmas break, pro-life representatives such as Cebu’s Raul del Mar and Buhay’s Atienza, as well as Albay’s anti-death penalty Rep. Edcel Lagman and Rep. Garbin are giving it their most valiant opposition.


Death penalty in this country has had a checkered history.  During the Spanish colonial period medieval-type executions were prevalent and during the American and Japanese occupations, capital punishment was kept as a means of colonizing this country and suppressing resistance to the authorities. In post-World War II it continued to be upheld for offenses that the Supreme Court labeled as “crimes of senseless depravity or extreme criminal perversity.”

In the 20 years of the Marcos regime, capital crimes rose, the most celebrated being the gang-abuse of a screen star. Ninoy Aquino was sentenced to die by firing squad following accusations of several capital crimes in 1977, but he was allowed to seek medical help in the US and was murdered at the airport upon his return on Aug. 21, 1983.  


As mentioned earlier, the post-Marcos era President Cory abolished the death penalty, but during the term of President Fidel Ramos, a series of heinous crimes returned it in December 1993, listing 46 crimes punishable by it. During President Joseph Estrada’s time, crimes continued to rise but he issued a de facto memorandum holding capital punishment in abeyance, in deference to the pressure of the Church and observance of the Jubilee Year. 

On the other hand, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo was quoted as asserting that while she was personally not in favor of death penalty, in view of the rising criminality she would resume executions stayed by President Erap’s moratorium. In June 2006, however, capital punishment was suspended via R.A. 9346, and it has been suspended ever since---but it’s now being revived in the Duterte administration.


I am personally against the death penalty, as I believe that life emanates from God and only He has the right to take it away. An equally important reason is that it would be a throwback to the Middle Ages when torture by death was prevalent. It should also be mentioned that some 126 countries around the world have already abandoned death penalty as punishment, opting for programs to rehabilitate broken lives. A good number of states in the US have likewise done so, and there is hot debate among the other states. The world is now realizing, it seems, that death penalty has not been a deterrent to criminality.

I agree with Lito Atienza’s argument that the prevailing deep poverty as well as continuing corruption in the administration of criminal justice contribute to rising statistics on criminality in our society---which a revival of the death penalty will not solve or even deter. The solution, argues Atienza, is to reform the criminal justice system mainly by eliminating corruption down the line---so that light-sentence criminals are not mixed with the hardened ones---and instilling the rule of law.  

He noted that prisoners from very poor circumstances who are jailed for petty crimes often rot in jail, whereas those who can pay for good lawyers and/or corrupt judges escape prolonged imprisonment.

Talking of poverty as a definitive factor in criminality, it’s good to note that The Netherlands RECENTLY CLOSED DOWN 19 PRISONS IN THAT COUNTRY. You know why? No more inmates!  I ascribe this incredible phenomenon to two factors: the low poverty rate in the Netherlands and reforms in its justice system. WE SHOULD CERTAINLY TAKE A HARD LOOK AT THE SITUATION IN THE LOW COUNTRIES.  


Fr. Ranhillo Aquino, dean of the Graduate School of San Beda College, argued strongly in his Dec. 05, 2016 column in the Manila Standard that now, more than ever, we need the “ferocity of our convictions,” vs. what he terms the poised ramming through in Congress of the bill that returns the death penalty. In fact, points out Fr. Rannie, “so confident are its advocates (in the House) that the measure will pass muster that the conversation there has turned ghastly---which methods inflicts the most agony…” He argues that “if so much noise was made about the burial of one long dead (the late President Marcos), the proposal to inflict death on the living should meet with even more spirited opposition and manifest disgust.”

I wholeheartedly agree.

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