An indictment of our criminal justice system

The Freeman

The figures are already alarming. Around 200 suspected drug dealers and users were killed since the start of July, according to CNN Philippines Research. Majority of them were killed during police operations while over a quarter were gunned down by unknown assailants.

As a member of the human rights group National Union of People's Lawyers (NUPL), I am alarmed by these killings that are happening regularly. In the words of my good friend Edre Olalia, NUPL Secretary General, "They shoot users don't they?Enough already."

In an NUPL statement, Edre wrote, "Let us be crystal clear:  the drug menace must stop. Goodness, we hate drugs too. There should be no two minds about it. Yet the apparent serial summary executions of alleged street drug users or petty drug lords which appear sudden, too contrived and predictable must also stop. The two are not incompatible."

Let me depart a little bit from this uncompromising stand, however, and take a standpoint through the multifaceted lens of legal history.

I was at the University of the Philippines Law Center in Diliman, Quezon City last week where I chanced upon the new edition of  Dean Pacifico Agabin's book, "Mestizo: The Story of the Philippine Legal System." In the book's Introduction, Agabin suggests that "Law must be seen in context. The proper context of a legal system is culture. The lay of the land is part of the law of the land."

Agabin states that in a developing country like the Philippines where half of the population live below the poverty line, "the law penetrates the upper half, or even less, that is, only members of the ruling class and those living in the highly urbanized cities. The lower half of the people live on a split-level legal structure which combines customary law with the prevailing national law."

Gripping through the pages of the book, I cannot help but connect its passages to the seeming current national inclination for quick and violent fixes.

It says that from the pre-colonial period to the modern times, it took a long and arduous route for our society to adopt the complex legal system now embodied in our substantive and procedural laws. Even the now inherent concept of "due process," which is the right to be heard before condemnation, took time to take root.

The existence of a mediator was also a relatively advanced concept that slowly developed in primitive tribal communities. Yet "the human thirst for vengeance" constantly posed a challenge. A hybrid of colonial Spanish and Anglo-American influences later ingrained this principle into our modern judicial system.

Now, what does this piece of legal history have to do with the current spate of killings of suspected drug criminals nationwide?

Let me connect the two by saying that the ideology behind Western concepts of substantive and procedural due process may not have genuinely penetrated the majority of our people. I am not suggesting that our people are averse to these principles. Indeed, we can all easily agree to uphold these principles.

But we should also look ourselves in the mirror. There we may be able to spot the underlying cause why we have reached the point where by our collective silence on the spate of killings, we'd rather have blood of suspected criminals in our hands, than trust the wheels of justice to take its usual course in holding criminals accountable?

We might realize that for every deed that corrodes the ideological foundations of our democratic and republican state - for every individual or institutional act of corruption, treachery, patronage, or mere lip service - these all add up toward a failing criminal justice system that is hard up to catch criminals who threaten the survival of the community.

Thus, in the war against illegal drugs for example, we have chosen to seek retribution against those who destroy society by their greed and madness, in the primal and brutal ways of our tribal past. Enough already.

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