by Inday Espina-Varona
A United Nations (UN) special rapporteur hit the Philippines’ crackdown on drug suspects as a display of arbitrary power than a serious response to the country’s narcotics problem.
Philip Alston, the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, said the campaign instead resulted in the decline of the rule of law, with severe consequences to society.
Speaking before a national congress of anti-death penalty groups on October 10, Alston said violence as state response to the drug problem “does nothing in the long run.”
The poor get the shaft whether the death penalty is sanctioned by law or by draconian executive programmes that peddle the fiction that police only kill those who fight back.
In the Philippines, the draconian—critics say unconstitutional— methods of the president, Rodrigo Duterte, have killed at least 6,000 people in sanctioned law enforcement operations.
There are very few court warrants that back these operations, which have also killed about 50 children.
In one dramatic case, village security cameras showed officers dragging 17-year-old Kian de los Santos through neighbourhood alleys until they reached an open space where the kneeling, pleading youth was shot three times in the back and behind his head.
A dozen complaints now with the International Criminal Court have witnesses to summary killings. In all the cases, the victims were of urban poor stock.
Alston said Duterte’s three-year “war” against narcotics, which largely targets poor users and street dealers, does not diminish drug usage nor aid individuals and communities struggling with the problem.
He is right. From pledging to wipe out the scourge of drugs in six months, Duterte fell back to a year, then three years. Eventually, he said the problem was so big it couldn’t be licked in a Philippine leaders’ single, six-year term.
Many advocates of the death penalty see it as a deterrent to crime. Sectors that oppose it note that crime rates remain serious in countries that execute criminals.
But that debate isn’t going to affect Duterte’s views. He sees only one reason for the death penalty—retribution.
Weeks before he assumed the presidency, Duterte said: “Whether you like to commit a crime or not, that’s not my business.”
He said, “Death penalty to me is the retribution.”
Missing due process
Retribution is, at best, a questionable goal in societies with lopsided access to economic, political and social rights.
In the United States (US), according to Alston, the death penalty “affects much more severely those who are not well-off financially.” Deprived of decent lawyers, suspects are easy prey for abusive police and prosecutors.
That is a familiar scenario in the Philippines, which bases much of its law on the US, its former colonial master, and Spain, which ruled the country for three centuries.
In 2017, people from the Commission on Human Rights found that police in Manila’s Tondo district, a key front in Duterte’s drug war, had detained 12 people behind a bookshelf.
Officers called it a stopgap measure to address overcrowding. But a woman who had escaped, the probers’ tipster, said police kept suspects in the secret cell until they coughed up money for freedom.
Duterte’s threat to annihilate drug users and the free hand given the police to hunt down a sector of the population he considers vermin, has only worsened the climate of fear and the potential for abuse.
Law school dean, Jose Manuel Diokno, believes the people’s unmet needs for justice breed poverty and alienation, fuel for crime.
The corrupt often get away with it. Only one of five cases of government abuses reach the Office of the Ombudsman, the prosecutorial arm for state accountability. The rot has infected all sectors of the justice system, resulting in frequent miscarriages of justice.
A Supreme Court study of death penalty cases from 1993 to 2004 found a judicial error rate of 70 per cent in 907 cases. Most of these cases involved poor people.
But those are the lucky ones. The Philippines returned the death penalty in 1993 but only seven people died in the period until it was repealed in 2006. That’s a far cry from the human toll under Duterte government’s unofficial and often unilateral death penalty.
Ignoring vigilante killings
Aside from the 6,000 listed under police killings, triple that number have been felled by teams of gunmen.
Law enforcers claim the culprits are vigilante and feuding drug gangs, but have not moved to solve these cases. Investigative journalists and rights groups, on the other hand, have traced a few of these killings to police officers and agents doubling as death squad members.
That’s old news to Alston. The former UN special rapporteur for extrajudicial executions visited the Philippines in 2007 to investigate some 800 political killings since former president, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, assumed office in 2001.
Alston’s mission also covered extrajudicial killings of suspected criminals in Duterte’s home city of Davao.
“Vigilante groups,” he said, was “a polite euphemism … when accounting for the shocking predictability with which criminals, gang members and street children are extra-judicially executed.”
Whatever police recorded in their logbooks, Alston said the Davao killings displayed “officially-sanctioned character.”
Probing these old murders is dangerous.
Leila de Lima, a senator and former chairperson of the Commission of Human Rights, is in jail in what many see as trumped up charges. As head of the human rights body, she angered Duterte, who ruled Davao City for decades, by tagging the deaths as summary killings.
On her election to the Senate in 2016, De Lima moved for a legislative probe on the same issue. Duterte’s ferocious anger involved slurs and cursing, accusations of coddling drug lords, the threat of public shaming via a fake sex video and, eventually, criminal charges and denial of bail.
Duterte also launched attacks against human rights and activist groups, clergy, artists and journalists in retribution for their focus on his drug war.
The Philippine leader has banned UN experts from conducting an independent human rights probe. He even ordered the foreign office to punish 18 UN member-nations that signed a UN Human Rights Council resolution calling for a probe into Philippine rights violations.
Any talk of rights gets the response: “obstructing justice,” or worse, accusations that one is on the payroll of drug gangs. Duterte vows to brook no interference in his drug war, hurling threats in the name of Filipino children.
Fear breeds corruption
The Philippines’ faces a gargantuan problem with narcotics and Duterte’s response isn’t going to make it go away.
The narcotics trade entangled the president’s hand-picked men in the 2017 landing of a US$124 million ($972 million) shipment of methamphetamine hydrochloride, locally called shabu.
A legislative probe that followed dragged in friends of Duterte’s son, Paolo, now a member of the House of Representatives. That shipment, at least, got stopped at a warehouse.
A second, equally big shipment, smuggled in magnetic lifters, disappeared in a surreal drama that had the president denying reports, only to be contradicted by the head of the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency.
Instead of punishing those responsible for these incidents, Duterte re-assigned them to other equally critical positions. The former head of the Bureau of Customs, Nicanor Faeldon, was handed the plum post as chief of the Bureau of Corrections.
The result: a scandal over questionable early releases of convicts, including at least two Chinese drug lords.
A legislative probe on that has spiralled into a second, even bigger controversy. Former senior police officers have accused Duterte’s national police chief, Oscar Albayalde, of protecting a bunch of officers charged with holding back three-fourths of a 160-kilogramme shabu seizure and then recycling this back to the streets.
The same officers were also accused of collecting almost a million US dollars ($7.8 million) in exchange for the arrested Chinese drug lords’ freedom.
It is a fact of life: fat cats in the Philippines waltz off into golden retirements. The poor and their champions die at the altar of retribution—with no chance to defend themselves. UCAN
Inday Espina-Varona is editor and opinion writer for various publications in Manila.
The views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial stance of UCAN.