South Korean prosecutors sought the death penalty yesterday for the captain of the ferry that sank last April, killing about 300 mostly high school students.
If approved and carried out, it would end the de facto moratorium on capital punishment observed by South Korea for several years now. Like most Asian countries except three, South Korea has not abolished the death penalty.
The three countries are Cambodia, Mongolia, and of course the Philippines.
When Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, beloved of the Catholic Church, abolished the death penalty in June 2006, Rome’s Colosseum was lit up – a tradition observed each time capital punishment is abolished anywhere in the world.
The 1987 Constitution abolished the death penalty. It was reinstated under Fidel Ramos, as he had promised during his campaign for the presidency, amid a crime wave.
This time, with another upsurge in crime, several of which involve policemen, there are again calls to revive capital punishment. A notable proponent of the revival is Sen. Vicente Sotto III, a vocal pro-life advocate in the reproductive health debate. He’s against preventing the coupling of sperm and egg, but he’s for sending adult humans to their death by lethal injection.
The head of the Senate committee on justice and human rights, Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel III, said the other night that Congress is unlikely to revive capital punishment. (He didn’t say it, but among those who might end up being sent to the lethal injection chamber are senators accused of plunder.) But he believes that if a survey is taken, Filipinos will go for capital punishment.
Pimentel said this at a gathering hosted the other night by Italian Ambassador Massimo Roscigno for participants in the 1st Asia Pacific Dialogue on Human Rights and Respect for the Dignity of Life.
The two-day gathering at the EDSA Shangri-la Plaza ended yesterday. Its slogan is “no justice without life,” and it was held for the first time outside Rome.
Italian Member of Parliament Mario Marazziti, who heads the body’s human rights commission and is a co-founder of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty, told me that they picked the Philippines as the venue in hopes that the country would serve as a role model in a region where capital punishment is still prevalent even in the most prosperous economies.
“We need to break the idea that Asia is different and the death penalty in Asia is normal,” Marazziti told me.
He believes the Philippines is in a position to show Asia “that justice that always respects life is possible.”
* * *
Certain Asian nations might scoff at this, and I can see a number of Filipinos snickering at the idea that there is justice and respect for life in this country.
I told Marazziti that while we have abolished capital punishment, we have the highest number of unexplained killings in East and Southeast Asia, possibly the highest murder rate attributed to crimes unrelated to politics or national security, and an atrociously large number of political executions that peak during election season.
Marazziti pointed out that no statistics in the world could show that capital punishment is a deterrent to crime. “The death penalty has little to do with the safety of a country,” he said.
“When the state kills, it becomes like the killer,” he told me. “The most terrible criminal, we must be different from him.”
On the other hand, he said, efforts to stop capital punishment, such as the “Innocence Project” in the United States, have saved hundreds of those wrongly convicted. He noted that the largest number of exonerations involved those whose convictions were based on signed “confessions” and supposed eyewitness accounts.
In Japan, where Marazziti says lawmen can detain suspects for up to 23 days without formal charges, suspects can sign confessions mainly to aim for reduced sentences.
I told him Filipinos like voting for “Dirty Harry” types and tend to look the other way when law enforcers resort to summary executions to neutralize criminals. This is because of the weakness of law enforcement and the criminal justice system in general.
Marazziti acknowledges that discouraging capital punishment also calls for a combined effort in improving law enforcement, judicial processes, public education, and poverty alleviation. Even speedy trials, he says, can be risky if the judicial system is unreliable.
He is unfazed in his advocacy. Their Italy-based Comunita di Sant’Egidio, founded in 1968, now has about 60,000 volunteers in 73 countries including the Philippines. The group is working not only to stop capital punishment but also to fight AIDS, reduce the number of “invisible children” or those who are not registered at birth, as well as other programs to empower people and promote peace.
A resolution calling for a global moratorium on capital punishment received 104 votes when it was first presented to the United Nations General Assembly in 2007. The same resolution received 110 votes in 2012.
The resolution will be presented again at the UN General Assembly this November, and Marazziti’s group is hoping the Philippines could encourage more countries to support the effort.
In the Asia-Pacific, Marazziti takes heart in the fact that implementation of capital punishment is down by about 30 percent in China – a country with one of the highest rates of state executions. He said this is “probably” because the Chinese Supreme Court barred lower courts from imposing death sentences.
“There were too many mistakes,” Marazziti said.
As participants in the just concluded conference like to point out, you can’t say oops after someone has been executed.