The Death Penalty: Some Questions and Answers and Appeal Cases” (Ai Index Asa 35/10/97)

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In 1987 the Philippines set an historic precedent by becoming the first Asian country in modern times to abolish the death penalty for all crimes. The move formed part of a determined effort to restore respect for human rights following the ouster of President Ferdinand Marcos. The new government of President Corazon Aquino also promulgated a Constitution with a Bill of Rights, established an independent Commission on Human Rights and acceded to the major international human rights treaties. Today, more than 400 people convicted of capital offences are held on Death Row and a newly constructed ‘Lethal Injection Chamber’ stands ready adjacent to the National Penitentiary at Muntinlupa. With an average of up to twelve people being sentenced to death every month the Philippines, in less than four years, has gone from an abolitionist position to having one of the highest sentencing rates in the world. The Supreme Court has begun its review of these sentences and the first execution, by law possible after 27 February 1998, could well presage a flood. At one time the Philippines, standing against a regional tide towards the increased use of the death penalty and seeking clemency for its own nationals facing execution overseas, stood as a positive role model in Southeast Asia. Today it risks losing that status, undermining its ability to protect Filipinos on death row abroad who may have been unfairly convicted. The decision of the Philippine Congress in late 1993 to re-introduce capital punishment for ‘heinous’ crimes was founded on a sense of public fear and frustration at spiralling rates of violent crime. With public faith in the effectiveness of the criminal justice system at a low ebb the reintroduction of the death penalty was portrayed as a symbol of the authorities’ determination to dispense justice effectively, to respond to the suffering of crime victims, and to ‘get tough on criminals’. Attitudes to capital punishment and to the part played by the abolition of the death penalty in the struggle to build an over-arching structure of human rights protection after the repression of the Marcos years, have undergone a marked shift. The relevant principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) that guided the framers of the 1987 Constitution-specifically the clauses stating that one of the most fundamental of human rights is the ‘right to life’, and that the process culminating in an execution of a detainee constitutes the most extreme form of ‘cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment’-appear to have been set aside. Nevertheless persistent voices in the Philippines continue to express deep disquiet over how the death penalty is being applied, and to oppose the move towards executions. Claims that executions have a significant impact on reducing crime levels and enhancing the security of law-abiding citizens have been proved false in other countries and are set to be proved false in the Philippines. There is no evidence that the death penalty acts as a greater deterrent to criminals than other forms of punishment. The killing by the Philippine state of prisoners convicted of capital crimes will not provide a solution to the challenge of criminality-which will continue to be fuelled by a complex of factors including poverty, social inequality, unemployment and the weakening of formal and informal methods of social control. The death penalty also carries a manifest risk of miscarriages of justice. No criminal justice system in the world is immune from errors and that of the Philippines is no exception. A single error that culminates, irrevocably, in the execution of an innocent person would represent a shocking failure of justice-in effect, a judicial murder. The risk of judicial error is sharply increased if torture or ill-treatment of criminal suspects is used to extract confessions. Such grave violations of human rights are prohibited by the Philippine Constitution and by the key international human...
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