Impunity and discretionary justice

Rodrigo Duterte, Ronald Dela Rosa, Manny Pacquiao, and Koko Pimentel
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The phrase “heinous crimes,” for which death is their preferred penalty, falls often from the mouths of the advocates of state-sponsored murder, whether capital punishment, or the use of extrajudicial killings against suspected drug users and pushers as well as lawyer, student, farmer and worker activists and regime critics. Include in this lot certain senators and congressmen, the police and military, some judges, and, of course, the current president of this endangered republic.

Among the crimes they often describe as “heinous” is kidnapping and murder, but only when these are committed by a slum dweller, a worker, a farmer, a Lumad or a Moro, or anyone else who’s not in their company. They don’t label “heinous” the crimes committed by the well-connected, wealthy and powerful, whether rape, kidnapping, or the extrajudicial killings by state security forces and their paramilitaries that like dengue and measles have become rampaging epidemics in this vale of tears.

Some of these death penalty partisans even become advocates of giving convicted criminals from the privileged few the “second chance” that death by lethal injection, hanging, or firing squad  would deny the less fortunate. The impunity of the powerful and well-connected has always been a fact of life in these isles,  but  it has never been as “normal” as today under a broken justice system controlled by bureaucrats who value only their own lives, and who haven’t lost their capacity to imagine the cruelest means of killing the poor that they would even turn into public spectacles.

Boxer, billionaire and death penalty enthusiast Manny Pacquiao may be forgiven for assuming that the execution of Jesus Christ was just, and an argument for capital punishment. He apparently has little or no understanding of what he claims to have read in the Bible. Least of all is he aware that it was the legions of the Roman Empire as an occupying force in the Jewish homelands that killed Christ. 

His fellow enthusiasts, however, deserve less, because, while arguing for the death penalty, they’re at the same time justifying, and have even knowingly allowed the release, through Republic Act 10592, the 2013 Good Conduct Time Allowance (GCTA) Law, of some of the vilest monsters this benighted land has ever spawned.

RA 10592 is one of those presumably well-meaning laws that like many others of similar intent is being used for self-serving ends by those bureaucrats misusing the power to decide who goes free and who doesn’t. It was passed in recognition of the possibility that some of those who’re serving prison sentences deserve earlier release for good behavior and time already served.

The GCTA law’s reasonable assumption is that those in that category of convicts could have truly repented and reformed. Although it doesn’t say so, there is also the possibility that some of those in prison today were innocent and wrongly convicted to begin with, given the infirmities of the misnamed justice system, among them its finding an individual guilty even if he confessed under police torture, was tried by an incompetent and partial judge, or, because he could not afford a pricey lawyer, was not represented by competent counsel.

These lethal flaws indict the Philippine system as a mockery of justice, while the release and attempted release of those guilty of  the most abominable crimes validate the widespread sense that far from being blindfolded, justice in the Philippines has both eyes open.

The conviction and imprisonment of the wealthy and well-connected does happen, although it’s more the exception rather than the rule. When that does occur, they have the option to serve their sentences in the comfort and ease of air-conditioned mini-condominiums with catered meals and even female companionship. They can have the run of the prison, and can go in and out of it at will. (One of the many such examples is that of a politician who, although imprisoned for murder, frequented his Ayala Avenue office and  his home in one of Makati’s exclusive residential enclaves during his supposed confinement.)

Because his was a high-profile case, and due to widespread public outrage, the case of former Calauan, Laguna mayor Sanchez, who was convicted of rape and double murder and given seven life sentences in 1993, has received the most attention. But as the revelations of such knowledgeable people as Senator Panfilo Lacson are proving, there are others guilty of such abhorrent crimes as  drug dealing,  kidnapping and murder who have been released through the GCTA law before they’ve served their full sentences. Because their release cuts short the prison terms to which they have been sentenced, these instances are themselves proof of the prevalence of impunity and selective justice.

Sanchez’ nearly being released last August 20 has provoked suggestions to amend RA 10592. But it is also being used by the mindless death penalty chorus in Congress as an argument for the reimposition of capital punishment.

Not only won’t the return of the death penalty solve the problem. It will also make it worse, not only because it will condemn to death those wrongfully convicted by the severely flawed justice system. There is also the distinct possibility that in the Philippine regime of discretionary justice, its reimposition will drive the well-connected into using every means available, including boosting the already huge amounts of bribes they already offer the police and judges, as well as to intimidate and even kill witnesses so they can literally get away with murder, thus contributing further to the corruption that afflicts much of government.

The end result will be to condemn more of the poor and powerless without the benefit of being released despite being later exonerated, death being final. The supreme irony is that the death penalty’s seeming to be a solution to the exemption from punishment, or the impunity that has become an established way of doing things in this country, will instead further harden it.

Neither is amending the GCTA law the solution that will prevent the release of undeserving and unrepentant criminals, since, as everyone with any sense has realized by now, even the best laws end up being the worst once implemented by the most corrupt and most incompetent political class in Asia and their minions in the military and civilian bureaucracies.

The selective implementation of the plunder law has allowed plunderers to go scot-free and to even be elected to high office. The laws against murder have not prevented mass murderers from escaping punishment and doing the same. And far from democratizing representation in the lower house of Congress, the Party List Law has succeeded in further marginalizing the voiceless and strengthening the putrid rule of the political dynasties and their coteries who have had a monopoly on political power since Commonwealth days.

Neither of the above “solutions” will do. The cure cannot be anything but political: it is to put an end to the rule of the handful of families and their accomplices, clones and agents whose power over government is not limited to Congress, but extends to the judiciary, and, through the executive branch, to the military, the police, and the penal system.  

But like the real remedy to such problems as poverty and the perennial threat of tyranny, the implementation of that solution will have to wait for the coming of the alternative State and society whose realization has long eluded the people of this dark realm of injustice and impunity.

Also published in BsuinessWorld. Photo from PCOO.

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