REINSTATEMENT of the death penalty inched closer to realisation on Wednesday when the Philippine House of Representatives approved a president-backed Bill on second reading, sparking concern in the opposition over the apparent muzzling of certain lawmakers.
House Bill 4727, which would primarily allow drug-related offences to be punishable by death, was approved by an overwhelming majority after House leaders called for a vote by viva voce (voice vote).
Opponents to the Bill were drowned out by those advocating for the measure, according to a report from Rappler.
Efforts were made by opposition lawmakers to move to a nominal vote, but they proved futile as the session was immediately adjourned following the Bill’s approval.
The convincing success of the Bill has prompted a wave of upset among those who oppose the proposal.
“This is a chamber of puppets and bullies,” Albay 1st District Representative Edcel Lagman told Rappler after a majority of his colleagues voted in favour.
“In the history of Congress – I’ve been here since 1987 – I have not experienced this inordinate muzzling of members of the House.”
Lagman is the latest in a string of lawmakers who have expressed concern that the House is being controlled by House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez, a staunch ally of President Rodrigo Duterte.
Prior to the vote, Alvarez had openly threatened to remove House leaders from their posts should they decide to vote against the Bill.
Ifugao Representative Teddy Baguilat Jr, seconds Lagman’s concerns stating, “We are treated like puppets. Whatever the majority or the Speaker (Alvarez) wants, with the power of the gavel, that’s what’s going to happen.”
The proposal to reinstate the death penalty has been a key policy for Duterte as part of his crackdown on crime and corruption.
It was originally intended to cover all grave offences such as rape, treason and plunder but after a heated debate in Congress, the Bill was reduced to only include “drug related heinous crimes” to ensure it makes it through Senate.
Since Duterte took office in June, 7,700 people suspected of being drug dealers or users have been killed by police officers or vigilantes. Rather than condemn the killings, Duterte has openly condoned the extrajudicial killings, leading critics to fear that the reinstatement of the death penalty could lead to state-sanctioned killings.
For the Bill to be passed into law, it must face a third reading in the House before going to the Senate. It would then be handed to the president for signing.
These measures are largely deemed to be symbolic as the second reading is considered the most difficult part of the legislative process and its outcome is usually indicative of the final result.
Both the House and the Senate are also controlled by those close to Duterte, making opposition to the Bill difficult.
But opposition lawmakers have not given up hope.
“We lost. The next battleground is the Senate,” said Harry Roque, a lawmaker who voted against the measure.
The Bill has received significant opposition from a number of senators as well as vocal opposition from the Catholic Church.
In a letter read out in all churches last month, the country’s bishops said they “unequivocally oppose proposals and moves to return the death penalty into the Philippine legal system.”
The Church also organised a rally in Manila last month that saw 50,000 people take to the streets to protest Duterte’s heavy-handed and bloody policies, including his war on drugs, as well as the reimposition of the death penalty.
Human rights experts have also denounced yesterday’s vote by the House of Representatives.
“Reinstatement of the death penalty won’t solve any drug-related societal problems that Congress …seeks to address,” Human Rights Watch deputy Asia director Phelim Kine said.
“It will only add to the already horrific death toll that President Rodrigo Duterte’s ‘war on drugs’ has inflicted on Filipinos.”
The Philippines became the first country in Asia to abolish the death penalty in 1987 when the government approved Article III, Section 19 of the 1987 Constitution.
President Fidel Ramos then reimposed the death penalty in 1993 as a “crime control” measure, but it was then abolished once again in 2006 by then-President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. The last execution was in 2000.