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PHILIPPINES: The importance of new laws in implementing human rights standards

June 11, 2006
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The Philippines' legislative branch has taken important steps towards implementing human rights standards in the country. On June 6, the law imposing capital punishment for heinous crimes--Republic Act No. 7659, or the Death Penalty Law--was abolished when the Senate unanimously approved Senate Bill 2254, or an Act Abolishing the Death Penalty Law. The newly approved act awaits signature from President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who earlier certified the measure to abolish capital punishment as urgent. On June 7, a congressional committee also approved consolidated bills to criminalise torture, paving the way for deliberation of the proposed bill by the full Congress.

The abolition of the death penalty sends a strong message that execution--the most barbaric and cruel form of punishment--has no place in a civilised society. It upholds the respect by the state to every individual of their inherent right to life and to be free from cruel and degrading punishment. It recognises that capital punishment cannot be a solution to reducing the crime rate but rather poses a serious threat to people who are unable to defend themselves in court, particularly the poor. In a country where the three pillars of the criminal justice system--the policing, prosecution and judiciary--are dysfunctional, there cannot be any assurance that those convicted are proven "guilty beyond reasonable doubt". They sometime become victims of the defective system. When they are executed, there is no undoing the consequences.

Having abolished the death penalty, the responsibility lies now on the government to improve rehabilitation efforts. Jails in the Philippines are congested, and lack facilities, food and adequate security. Even the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) of the Philippines acknowledged this problem in its 2005 report, when it declared that the country's jails are not suitable for humans. A number of needless deaths of prisoners have been reported in recent times. Take the three inmates at the General Santos City Rehabilitation Center who died from disease in December 2005. Not only were their illnesses not adequately treated, due to a lack of medical equipment and medicines inside the jail, but a food shortage hindered their recovery. Such incidents cause serious concerns that the government needs to address in order that prisoners can attain minimum standards of living while serving their sentences. This obligation is especially pertinent in view of the recent election of the Philippines to the new UN Human Rights Council, whereupon it has pledged "to uphold the highest standard of human rights".

The approval by the committee in Congress to pass the consolidated bills criminalising torture is of perhaps even greater importance than the abolition of the death penalty, as torture is among the most grievous forms of human rights abuse, and also the most hidden. One of the proposed bills is House Bill 4307 or the Anti-torture Act of 2005, the latest version of a bill which has undergone a number of redrafts and been reintroduced every time there has been a new Congress. In fact, the proposal to criminalise torture had been pending since the 8th Congress: some 15 years. The Philippines became a party to the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment in 1986. A year after, the 1987 Constitution was adopted with section 12 (2) of its Bill of Rights (Article III) clearly stipulating that,

"(1) Any person under investigation for the commission of an offense shall have the right to be informed of his right to remain silent and to have competent and independent counsel preferably of his own choice. If the person cannot afford the services of counsel, he must be provided with one. These rights cannot be waived except in writing and in the presence of counsel.

"(2) No torture, force, violence, threat, intimidation, or any other means which vitiate the free will shall be used against him. Secret detention places, solitary, incommunicado, or other similar forms of detention are prohibited.

"(3) Any confession or admission obtained in violation of this or Section 17 hereof shall be inadmissible in evidence against him.

"(4) The law shall provide for penal and civil sanctions for violations of this section as well as compensation to the rehabilitation of victims of torture or similar practices, and their families."

Nineteen years on, despite this provision torture still has not been outlawed and another proposed bill is awaiting the attention of the parliament. This is despite the fact that in its concluding observations on the Philippine's compliance to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the UN Human Rights Committee in December 2003 noted that the state had failed to fulfil a core obligation to enact an enabling law against torture. The committee urged in its paragraph 9 that the Philippines "should ensure that its legislation gives full effects to the rights recognised in the Covenant and that domestic law is harmonized with the obligations".

The case of the 11 alleged torture victims who were arrested by the police in Buguias, Benguet on 14 February 2006 speaks to the serious need for the torture law to be passed by parliament. Even though a local court has ruled that their arrest was illegal, it did not rule on the merits of the case. The charges have not been dropped and the victims remain in jail, without adequate attention to their physical and psychological recovery in the aftermath of very gruesome forms of torture. Had two of them not been minors, they would not have been released to the custody of their parents. Two others, namely Rundren Lao and Jefferson Dela Rosa, have been facing serious threats on their lives inside the La Trinidad Provincial Jail. The security solution offered by Provincial Jail Warden James Simon has been only to detain the two men in the same cell "in order that they may watch each other". The burden of proof, meanwhile, lies on the 11 accused, and they will have to prove their innocence in court and refute their own statements and confessions which were allegedly taken by way of torture. The six arresting policemen have been charged for violation of Republic Act 7438, which defines certain rights of persons arrested, detained or under custodial investigation but not of torture. However, they have not yet faced any sanctions or been suspended from service pending inquiries. On the contrary: unlike their alleged victims, who languish in prison, they have received commendations and been promoted for their "accomplishments". This is despite the court having declared the arrests illegal.

The Asian Human Rights Commission calls upon all members of the Congress and Senate of the Philippines to pass the anti-torture bill without any further delay. Fifteen years is long enough. It urges President Macapagal-Arroyo to hasten the bill's approval, in recognition of the country's pledge to respect and protect human rights in accordance with its obligations under key international laws and as a member of the UN Human Rights Council. Finally, it calls for a strong response from all human rights defenders and concerned persons in the Philippines, to motivate public action and pressure to ensure that the Philippine government act on this matter with the urgency that it deserves.

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