Capital punishment as spectacle

Vantage Point | BusinessWorld

Thanks to her lawyers from the National Union of People’s Lawyers — and no thanks to the government — the execution of Mary Jane Veloso has been deferred, hopefully toward its eventually being commuted, or her being released.

Only in the very last days prior to her scheduled execution five years after her conviction for alleged drug trafficking did the Philippine government appeal to the Indonesian government for a stay of execution on humanitarian grounds.

Veloso’s trial took place in 2010, during which the Indonesian government provided her with a public attorney who was less than enthusiastic in defending her, and an interpreter whose competence in translating the court proceedings from Bahasa Indonesia to English was at least questionable. A further complication was Veloso’s own limited understanding of the English language.

Despite its current claims that it was helping her “from Day One,” the Philippine government, whether through its embassy in Indonesia, or the Overseas Workers Welfare Agency, provided neither the lawyer nor the interpreter that could have assured Veloso of a fair trial five years ago. Apparently the Philippine government has no established protocol to aid Filipinos in trouble with the laws of other countries, despite the crucial role of overseas workers’ remittances in keeping the economy afloat, and with dozens of overseas Filipino workers executed through various means — including decapitation and hanging — all over the globe.

The Veloso case has once more focused citizen attention on the difficulties of migrant Filipinos, including those of Veloso herself, who appears to have been duped into transporting 2.6 kilograms of heroin into Indonesia.

But equally important, it should lead to better informed understanding among the populace of the imperative of maintaining the country’s moratorium on the death penalty, and toward abolishing it by law. This is crucial in the context of recent calls to restore it from such quarters as a senator widely known for his cluelessness on a vast array of public issues, and the Volunteers Against Crime and Corruption (VACC).

Vicente Sotto III has once again filed the usual bill restoring the death penalty, and the VACC, through one of its board members, has weighed in on that ignoble attempt to curry favor with the public. It has suggested that not only should the death penalty be restored, it should also be both public as well as through — a la Indonesia — a firing squad. The idea is to “embarrass” the person being executed as well as to “scare” the population enough for would-be criminals to think twice before they kill, rape or kidnap. (Terrorize through a public display of State violence is the more precise term.)

Death by firing squad is among the means of capital punishment in current use in such countries as Indonesia. (Hanging, decapitation, stoning, lethal injection, electrocution are used in other countries.) In an orchestrated public spectacle, José Rizal was executed through the same method by the Spanish colonial government, which also favored public strangling through the garrote, which it used in the execution of Fathers Gomez, Burgos and Zamora in 1872. But the last time a firing squad was used to kill anybody officially was during the martial law period when, widely publicized through the captive media, a supposed drug lord was executed. But it was never used again, apparently because even the dictator Ferdinand Marcos had doubts about its efficacy as a deterrent, and its propaganda value.

Other than its dubious history — it’s being associated with colonial rule and dictatorship in this country in behalf of terrorizing the populace — the suggestion to re-impose capital punishment through musketry is apparently driven by no more than the desire for vengeance and retribution through the justice system rather than its civilized use to rehabilitate wrongdoers, which of course is impossible once he or she has been executed.

The Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) points out that the death penalty not only cheapens human life, it does not deter crime either. It is also a form of torture in that the anticipation of death is itself a form of punishment against the offender. In addition — and this is as true in other countries as in the Philippines — an imperfect justice system can make mistakes, or can willfully condemn someone for reasons other than justice.

It happens even in the US, which has a jury system. Because there is no jury system in the Philippines, once the death penalty is restored, a judge will have the sole power over the life or death of the alleged wrong-doer. Some judges, said the CBCP, “betray the dignity and nobility of their calling” by allowing “extralegal considerations to taint their judgments.” And yet, “The death penalty, once executed, is irreversible and no repentance or regret can ever make up for the horrible injustice of a person wrongfully executed.”

The CBCP also pointed out that among the country’s international obligations is the abolition of the death penalty, as mandated by the Second Optional Protocol of the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. “The principal obligation we assumed under this international agreement is to abolish the death penalty. We cannot and should not renege on our international obligations, especially when these are not only lawful but moral.”

Despite that Protocol, among the developed countries, only the US federal government and 32 states of the Union still have the death penalty. It is the subject of furious debate in the US, where executions have been botched, and in some cases found to have claimed the lives of people innocent of the crimes they had been convicted of.

Capital punishment is prohibited in the European Union. Only 36 countries still routinely impose the death penalty, while 103 countries have completely abolished it. The Philippines is among 50 countries where there is a moratorium on its use, but where it is in constant danger of being restored through such mindless campaigns as that of the VACC.

These considerations aside, restoring the death penalty would put the Philippines on the same level of hypocrisy as Indonesia, which has the death penalty, but campaigns against it in other countries when its nationals are involved. The Philippines could be executing alleged criminals at home while supposedly trying to save its citizens on death row abroad.

Essentially, however, the fact is that the death penalty is cruel, inhuman, irreversible, and doesn’t work in deterring crime. What it does is satisfy the thirst for vengeance, and — if the VACC were to succeed in having its suggestions followed — the lust for an obscene spectacle via State-sponsored violence.

Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro).

The views expressed in Vantage Point are his own and do not represent the views of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility.

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