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Fighting death penalty

We are persons of peace and at all times we can and should seek peace. (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, 4 , 5.)  

The more than 15 years of search for my missing son, Jonas Bugos, has taught me a most important lesson. The oppressors will never be my teachers.  

A few times during skirmishes, mostly after high tension hearings for our petition for the Writ of Amparo, I told some officers to their faces, even if they were a foot taller than me and even if their eyes glowered with much hidden messages, “I cannot be provoked into violence nor intimidated into silence.”  

We are persons of peace and at all times we can and should seek peace. (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, 4 , 5.)  

Picture me seated in court when the sentence of the suspected abductor was read. “Not guilty.” I heard that although the voice of the court clerk was subdued and almost hushed. Then I could hear troubled whispers in court when the suspect, a colonel, approached me and sat on the other end of the bench where I sat. My hands were steady but I think by God’s grace, my countenance was calm. 

He slowly sidled up to me. The urge to push him away was strong. Instead, I looked him in the eye (eyes don’t lie and I would see the truth) and softly whispered, “If indeed you are not guilty, help me find my Jonas.” He bowed his head and when he looked up, our eyes locked for a brief second.

Was it fear? Pain? Guilt? His eyes were not as courageous nor triumphant as a victor’s should be. I knew I touched a raw nerve then I noticed his hands trembling. I felt I was the victor in that encounter.

Today, once again, the Philippines is being threatened. Not by injustice or disappearance but by the return of the death penalty. In the 18th Philippine Congress, 19 bills seeking to reinstate the death penalty for selected serious crimes have been filed in 2019 alone. 

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In the newly convened 19th Congress,  it is not surprising if the same will happen. As early as the campaign period before the May 2022 elections, some senatorial candidates under the new president’s ticket announced their support to restore the capital punishment.  

Already, newly elected senators openly endorsed the filing of new bills to restore the death penalty. With an overwhelming majority of Congress loyal to the president, it is a foregone conclusion that the bill will be passed into law. The justice committee is likely to support the death penalty bills.

The main argument that the restoration of capital punishment would solve the drug problem and crimes related to substance abuse has been demolished by statistics.

Philippine church workers mark World Day Against Death Penalty on October 10. (Photo by Mark Saludes)

The death penalty is not a deterrent of crimes. 

“Crime rate in the Philippines were higher when the death penalty was in force, and in fact, went from 7.10 homicides per 100,000 population in 2006 to lower levels in the immediate years after its abolition, 6.7 homicides per 100,000 population in 2007; and 6.40 homicides per 100,000 population in 2008.” (Philippine Crime Rate Statistics 1990-2020).

In the news, we read that drug markets continue to flourish in countries that enforce the death penalty, such as China, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Malaysia. 

Studies found that the death penalty is anti-poor. Most of the prisoners in the death row are poor. 

“Before capital punishment was abolished in 2006 in the Philippines, 81% of the 1,121 inmates on death row worked low-income jobs” and “73%  earned less than Php10,000 a month.” (Equivalent to around 175 EUR as of September 2020.) 

The Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG) estimates that defending a capital case in the Philippines can cost as much as PhP329,000 per year.  (FLAG Anti-Death Penalty Task Force Position Paper, 2019). This would be equivalent to 5,810 EUR as of September 2020, an amount many inmates cannot afford.

It threatens innocent life. 

In 2004, the Supreme Court admitted in People v Mateo (2004) that 71.77% of death penalty convictions were wrong and were either modified or overturned.

This simply means that the Philippine Justice System can make and have made mistakes, and the imposition of the death penalty on innocent people has grave consequences that can never be reversed. The possibility of rehabilitation is forever lost. Being a member of the Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice, the Philippines has recommended the adoption of the basic principles on the Use of Restorative Justice Programs in Criminal Matters.  

It disregards the inherent dignity of the human person.

“…For human life is sacred and inviolable at every stage and in every situation. It is an indivisible good …. The death penalty violates the ethic of being people of life. We need then to show care for all life and for the life of everyone.” (Evangelium vitae, 87).  

“As long as you did it for one of the least of my brethren, you did it for me” (Matt.25:40).  

Many prisoners in the death row suffer indignities, not only from inhumane prison conditions but from ill treatment, torture and verbal or physical threats at the hands of law enforcers.

It does not bring healing to victim’s families. The long court process only re-traumatizes the families. Despite having their loved ones murdered, some family members of murder victims in the Philippines have spoken against the death penalty. 

Students of the Catholic De La Salle University in Manila stage a ‘noise barrage’ in 2017 to show their opposition to proposals to restore capital punishment in the country. (Photo by Jhun Dantes)

The death penalty goes against Art. III of the Bill of Rights of the 1987 Constitution, which states that “The Philippines has committed to ensuring that no person shall be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law.”  

And it is in direct violation of international standards and treaties. As a signatory to the ICCPR-OP2, the Philippines vowed to keep the death penalty permanently abolished when it ratified the treaty in 2007. There is no clause for withdrawal.

The death penalty would further enhance the culture of violence, impunity and death we are now experiencing.

Violence as a way of life is surrounding us, creeping slowly into our innermost being, presenting violence as the solution to survive in this world. We heed Henri Nouwen’s call “Your first responsibility in the midst of violence is to prevent it from destroying us.” 

Using violence to achieve peace, can never be.  Killing will not attain peace.

We who are vowed to fight for, with and in peace, should enter the battlefield with compassion as our weapon. Compassion is the most powerful agent of change.  It is the least costly and the most effective antidote to violence. It challenges us to lay down our biases and lift up the most injured.

With bias towards none, those who need compassion are both the victim of the crime and the guilty. The way should be to cure the condemned not to further doom. We simply remind ourselves that “the great mystery is not the cure, but the infinite compassion which is their source.” (Henri Nouwen)

Semantics to defend the position of those pushing for the return of capital punishment should not cloud or confuse us. We simply look at their motivations.   We ask ourselves, where do the motivations originate? Who would inspire a leader to encourage his agents to kill and to maim? Who would inspire a leader to discourage people from praying and attending church services? Who inspires a leader to encourage legislators to pass laws that would not only violate the rights of their own people but are an affront to the dignity of the persons they have sworn to serve? Then we ask ourselves, do we also allow this motivation to be our teacher? 

Knowing the answers, easily we declare that the shield most needed is prayer. 

Wherever we may be, a thought, a silent message, a conviction, a rejection of violence when owned and contemplated on by all, would generate a prayer that would be heard and answered.  

St. Teresa of Avila, the doctor of prayer, one of the greatest mystics, said “You pay God a compliment by asking great things of Him.”  

Entering the battlefield, let us not be overwhelmed by the thought that we will be joining a crowd where there will be liars, felons, frauds and hypocrites of varying degrees.  In this world, they are all over just as there will always be good people, angels and saints even in the darkest places.  To be part of this world would be to accept that “God hung among thieves.” And to know that “those who remain silent are responsible.” (Edith Stein)  

Edita Burgos is a doctor of education and a member of the Secular Order of Discalced Carmelites. Gunmen — believed to be soldiers — abducted her son Jonas Burgos in Manila in April 2007. He is still missing.

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