Wednesday, 12 July 2006

Abolition sparks human rights debate in Philippines

The President of the Philippines presented the Pope with a copy of the bill abolishing the death penalty, two days after she signed it into law. But the final step in the long campaign to end executions in the Philippines has prompted further debate about human rights in the country.

President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo gave Pope Benedict XVI a copy of Republic Act 9346 at their meeting in the Vatican on 26 June.

The act repealed the 1994 legislation that restored the death penalty and commuted all outstanding death sentences to life imprisonment without parole.

A statement from the presidential palace said the presentation to the Pope was a “gift of life” that was "wrapped in the high moral imperatives to walk away from capital punishment."

The statement said that abolition brought "swift emotional and moral relief to the third largest Catholic nation in the world".

"The President has made no secret that the abolition of the capital punishment would add new meaning to her meeting with Catholicism’s No. 1 defender of the sanctity of human life," it said.

The repeal of the death penalty law was criticised by anti-crime and victims' groups, and drew accusations that Mrs Arroyo was seeking support from the Church to strengthen her embattled presidency.

Political analyst Earl Perrano from the Institute of Political and Electoral Reforms told BBC News that the death penalty would always be divisive in the Philippines.

"There are often miscarriages of justice as police work in the Philippines is very sloppy and technology is outdated," he told the BBC.

"Because the justice system is very corrupt, most of the convicted are the poor because the rich bribe their way out of a sentence," he said.

'Prison conditions next'
Following victory in the campaign against the death penalty, the Catholic Church's Episcopal Commission on Prison Pastoral Care (ECPPC) plans to step up its campaign to address the state of the prison system.

A conference at the end of July will consider the Church's work with inmates in the Philippine prison system, which has problems with severe overcrowding, disease and detention of vulnerable juvenile prisoners in the same cells as adults. reported that a Manila prison built to hold 800 detainees is currently housing more than 5,000, and the prison in Quezon City is built for 815 people but its population is nearly 3,500.

Call to end political killings
Human rights groups have also highlighted that while judicial killings have now been outlawed, there is a growing problem with extra-judicial killings -- political killings outside the framework of the law.

The International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH) and the Philippine Alliance of Human Rights Advocates (PAHRA) "warmly" welcomed the abolition move and called on Mrs Arroyo to address an apparent increase in politically motivated killings.

PAHRA Secretary-General Renato G. Mabunga and FIDH President Sidiki Kaba wrote an open letter to the President on 28 June urging her "to mark a new commitment to the absolute and unequivocal respect of the most fundamental human right, the right to life".

"Reports of extra-judicial killings in the Philippines are received by our organisations with alarming regularity," they wrote in their letter.

"There is a growing pattern of politically motivated killings, reported across a number of provinces nationwide. Witnesses have reported victims being shot dead by unidentified men, suspected of links with the military, police, and other security forces.

"The principal targets of the shootings are human rights defenders, journalists, lawyers, community leaders, and union workers who speak out against the authorities. Groups and individuals identified with the opposition are increasingly at risk. Over the past year dozens of activists identified with opposition groups have been killed."

Mr Mabunga and Mr Kaba accused the government of consistently failing to investigate or bring to justice the people responsible for the attacks.

"This climate of impunity further fuels human rights violations," they said.

They called on the Philippine authorities to meet their obligations under international human rights standards by conducting prompt, thorough and impartial investigations into all extra-judicial killings, and ensuring that those identified as responsible were brought to justice before independent and impartial tribunals.

"Our organisations call upon you as President to send a clear and strong message that these unlawful killings will not be tolerated under any circumstances" they said.

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