MANILA, Philippines - Stiff resistance put up by pro-life lawmakers failed to stop the House of Representatives from approving on second reading last night the measure restoring the death penalty, but only for drug offenses.
The approval of a controversial measure pushed by President Duterte came after the chamber agreed to drop plunder, among other crimes, from the list of offenses that will warrant capital punishment.
Approval on third reading of a House measure is a formality.
Support in the Senate for the revival of capital punishment is less certain.
“House Bill 4727 is hereby approved on second reading,” House Deputy Speaker Raneo Abu said before banging the gavel at the plenary session, after moves for nominal voting by those opposed to the bill got “lost” several times.
Only 28 of the required 46 votes for nominal voting were mustered, comprising one-fifth of the 229 lawmakers who attended the session. A viva voce or voice vote was implemented instead, in which administration lawmakers beat their opponents.
Oriental Mindoro Rep. Reynaldo Umali, sponsor of the measure and chairman of the House committee on justice, at one point declared an “omnibus rejection” following repeated pleas for amendments deleting the words “death penalty” from the measure.
Human rights lawyer Rep. Edcel Lagman, who leads the independent opposition bloc, wanted a page-by-page amendment and a chance to scrutinize every detail, line and provision of the bill, but he was consistently blocked by Umali.
The Albay congressman even attempted to delete the usual 20-40-year life imprisonment to death and replace such with only a 12-year jail term of up to a maximum of 20 years in prison as minimum penalty, with reclusion perpetua as maximum penalty.
The scheduled plenary vote for the second reading approval of HB 4727 was derailed as anti-death penalty lawmakers – including House Deputy Speaker Rolando Andaya Jr. – introduced amendments to the measure like replacing its title, among others.
With Lagman in his group were congressmen from other parties, notably Reps. Lito Atienza and Tom Villarin of party-list groups Buhay and Akbayan, respectively, as well as Northern Samar Rep. Raul Daza.
Villarin said he wanted the death penalty bill authored by Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez, which was co-authored by a majority of administration lawmakers, “re-filed” under the House dangerous drugs committee chaired by Surigao del Norte Rep. Robert Ace Barbers.
“Now that the crimes have been reduced to drug-related ones, shouldn’t the amended substitute bill be recommitted to the committee on dangerous drugs?” he asked, noting that their colleagues “deliberately – albeit irresponsibly – “watered down” the measure.
“How can we properly discuss the penalty if we won’t tackle the nature of the crimes?” Villarin pointed out.
Lagman said yesterday’s observance of Ash Wednesday was highlighted by the House’s approval of the measure. “The observance of Ash Wednesday must not be left unnoticed in the House because this day signifies repentance and grief.
“We agreed that the bill be limited to drug-related heinous crimes. We removed treason, plunder and rape,” Umali earlier told reporters in a chance interview.
This is the second time House members have decided to remove plunder from the bill.
“It will be a lot easier to present facts and figures re-imposing death penalty for drug-related heinous crimes… The whole point is we get a headway in the re-imposition of the death penalty,” he explained.
At the Senate earlier yesterday, Majority Leader Vicente Sotto III said that his latest count on the sense of his colleagues on the death penalty was at an even 12-12 in favor and against the proposals.
Sotto noted that there were more senators against the revival of the death penalty until the proponents managed to swing votes in their favor.
He said that some of the senators who were either against or undecided were now supporting the death penalty because of his proposal to limit the coverage to large-scale drug offenses or the major syndicates.
“Originally we couldn’t get 12. The reason why we have 12 now is because I insisted that we should limit it to drugs and high levels only,” Sotto said.
“By high level we are talking about the Colanggos, Jaybee Sebastian, Odicta, Espinosa and the like,” he added, referring to some high-profile drug lords. Sotto was among the proponents in the Senate of the revival of the death penalty.
The others were Sens. Manny Pacquiao, Panfilo Lacson and Sherwin Gatchalian.
Senate President Aquilino Pimentel III and Sen. Richard Gordon, previously opposed to the revival of the death penalty, have lately been showing interest in hearing arguments supporting the measure.
The senators who have openly taken a stand against the death penalty were Franklin Drilon, Francis Pangilinan, Leila de Lima, Paolo Benigno Aquino IV and Risa Hontiveros.
Aquino said he expects serious debates on the death penalty bills once these are presented in plenary.
“The minority will play an active role in the debates and we will make sure that counter perspectives are given a space in the Senate,” Aquino said.
“Filipino lives are at stake here and most of these are the poor Filipinos who are usually at a disadvantage when they appear before the courts and in the eyes of the law,” he added.
Aquino said the possible violation of the country’s treaty obligations if the death penalty is reinstated is a matter that should be seriously taken into account during the debates.
At a forum in Makati City, Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez said committee chairmen and deputy speakers in the House of Representatives risk losing their positions if they don’t show support for President Duterte or for the revival of the death penalty.
He aired the warning as he marshalled support for the approval on third reading of the measure next week.
The specter of a reorganization at the House emerged days after Liberal Party senators in the so-called supermajority in the Senate were stripped of their committee chairmanships.
“If you can’t support our leadership and specially if you can’t support our President, I can take the liberty to replace the chairmen and deputy speakers,” Alvarez said in Filipino at the weekly “Insider Exclusive” forum organized by dzRJ radio station.
He was replying to a question on whether a reorganization in the House is possible under his leadership.
Any decision of his to reorganize the leadership in the chamber, Alvarez stressed, is in pursuit of his mandate and that he is not being a dictator.
But he expressed confidence he does not have to resort to reshuffling the House leadership as committee chairmen and deputy speakers are likely to toe the administration line on the revival of the death penalty.
He added the chamber is likely to approve on third and final reading next week the measure re-imposing the death penalty.
The Speaker said Congress is “way ahead of schedule” on the measure.
Earlier yesterday, Commission on Human Rights (CHR) commissioner Karen Gomez-Dumpit called on the House of Representatives to respect the legislative process in its handling of the death penalty measure.
“One of things that we were concerned about was also the fact that only nine interpellators were allowed to speak out of the 50 who have signed up,” Dumpit, told The STAR yesterday.
“We have to take a look at the process here. I wish they were given due course to also express their issues about the measure,” she added.
“It discriminates against the poor. We have serious issues about corruption not only in the courts, but also in other pillars of the justice system, particularly law enforcement. If we have a system that is imperfect, how can we have a perfect punishment of death for a process that is imperfect?” she added. – Marvin Sy, Robertzon Ramirez, Janvic Mateo