Mrs. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo has commuted the death sentences of the 1,205 convicts on death row to life imprisonment. Many will argue that she did so to earn brownie points with the Catholic Church, and incidentally to appease those human rights groups similarly opposed to the death penalty. They will see a connection between Mrs. Arroyo’s sub-zero popularity, the “people’s initiative” the bishops of the Church have opposed, and her decision.
About the bishops’ approval there can be no doubt. Mrs. Arroyo has to blunt their opposition to her and her House allies’ plan to force constitutional amendments down the nation’s collective throats, and Easter provided her the opportunity.
The next surveys should show how well or badly Mrs. Arroyo’s approval ratings have been affected by her decision. But public approval hardly matters to her at this point. Mrs. Arroyo has after all discovered the key principle in elite rule in the Philippines: it is that, once in power, staying there depends primarily on how well one can appease, and gain the approval and support of, the military, the police, and the power brokers of Philippine society. The Church in Catholic Philippines qualifies– as do the United States, the business community, and the political dynasties.
How political Mrs. Arroyo’s decision was we are likely to see further in the coming months. Human rights groups and lawyers have pointed out that Republic Act 7659 (the Death Penalty Act) is still in force. For the “change in policy” Mrs. Arroyo’s Easter message said was indicated by her decision to be real, RA 7659 should be repealed by Congress. Otherwise, Mrs. Arroyo can commute death sentences handed down by the courts at will, or else do nothing about them depending on her political interests.
The path for Mrs. Arroyo is thus clear as far as the death penalty is concerned: it is to encourage her allies in the House, who happen to constitute the majority, to repeal RA 7659. But Mrs. Arroyo can actually do more. She can also put a stop to the killing of political activists so she can gain favor in the eyes of Heaven as well as those of the Philippine bishops. It is in her power to do so.
Since 2001 when Mrs. Arroyo began what was to be a tumultuous watch, hundreds of political activists have been killed in the Philippines. Teachers, students, priests, women, lawyers, judges– even local government officials– have been deliberately targeted. Carried out methodically, they are so obviously government-approved, orchestrated and implemented the killings have become a cause for grave concern among international human rights groups including Amnesty International (AI) and the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC).
As AHRC has pointed out, no one has been arrested and prosecuted for the killings, which it described as “unrestrained” by government action.
“Common among all the victims is that they were persons critical of the government. In response, government and army officials have labeled the victims communist sympathizers, as if to excuse themselves of responsibility or involvement.”
AHRC cites an example. “Before Abelardo Ladera was killed in Tarlac, on January 22  the army’s Northern Luzon Command briefed local officials that he was a contact for the insurgent New People’s Army (NPA). His death was written off as a killing by communists, and not properly investigated. The same has followed in other cases. On April 4, Brigadier General Jose Angel Hondrado, the army civil relations chief, openly listed human rights, political, religious and media organizations that have allegedly been ‘influenced or infiltrated’ by communists.
“The effect of this branding,” said AHRC, “has been to excuse the authorities of responsibility in dealing with the cases: by implication, killing an alleged communist is not a crime in the Philippines. A further conclusion is that killing members of legitimate opposition parties or human rights activists is also permitted…
“None of this is new to the Philippines. Under the Marcos regime, the police and armed forces developed very advanced methods of detaining, torturing, disappearing and killing human rights defenders and political opponents. It also used the method of labeling opponents as communist sympathizers as a means to open the way for unrestrained violence against them…
“…Of bitter disappointment since the recent attacks is the apparent unwillingness of the current administration to do anything to address this trend. The combined effect of its inaction and unhelpful public statements is to suggest that the killing of political opponents and human rights activists is of no concern, and may even be beneficial to the country’s internal security and social order. These are exactly the same premises upon which Marcos based his bloody governance.”
Mrs. Arroyo’s decision has spared the lives of 1,205 death row convicts without any guarantee that others convicted in the future will be similarly spared. Meanwhile, the killing of political activists without benefit of trial and conviction is likely to continue. After all, though undeclared, it too, is policy.