COMMISSION on Human Rights chair Loretta Rosales was right: the death penalty has no place in any legal system — make that in any civilized legal system — but the rest of her statement the day after Sally Ordinario-Villanueva and Ramon Credo were executed in Xiamen, China, and Elizabeth Batain in Shenzhen, also in China, was off the mark.

Rosales issued a statement condemning the death penalty, but also declared that Ordinario-Villanueva, Credo and Batain had been “twice victimized,” first by the drug syndicates that used them, supposedly without their knowledge, to smuggle drugs abroad, and second by the “inflexibilities” of the Chinese judicial system. Rosales also took the opportunity to suggest that China consider abolishing the death penalty.

China penalizes with death the smuggling of 50 grams of heroin or any other prohibited drug, and is among the countries, which includes the United States, in which the death penalty is still in force.

According to Amnesty International, at least 527 executions took place all over the world last year, although that figure does not include how many were put to death in China, where the number of executions is a state secret. But AI suspects that “thousands” may have been executed in China in 2010.

“A significant portion” of offenses for which the death penalty is imposed are drug- related crimes, for example in such countries as Malaysia. The methods of execution vary per country, but include electrocution, lethal injection, shooting (by firing squad or a bullet to the head), and even beheading — and, in some Middle East countries, stoning, of which the usual victims are women. The Philippines has not abolished the death penalty but has stopped its use, thus joining other countries that still have the death penalty in their criminal codes but have stopped imposing it. AI notes that the use of the death penalty is in overall decline, with a number of countries having outrightly abolished it.

The death penalty has been condemned as a form of cruel and inhuman punishment, no matter what the method used. The Nobel laureate Albert Camus recalls in one of his essays (“Reflections on the Guillotine”) how his father, a death penalty advocate witnessing an execution for the first time, found it so abhorrent be became a life-long opponent of it.

The death penalty’s deterrent function is at best questionable, and its finality an argument against it. People who have later turned out to be innocent have been executed, for example in the US state of Texas, where executions, say some critics, are so numerous they’re practically on an assembly-line basis. Now and then some idiot from Congress will suggest its revival in the Philippines, where incidentally people are still being killed extra-judicially by state security forces as part of the government’s counter-insurgency program.

In certain failed African states and Middle East countries, abolishing the death penalty may be a near-impossibility. But every country with a credible legal system that still has the death penalty, including China and the United States, should consider abolishing it altogether for its inhumanity. One should add that its re-imposition in the Philippines, where, on the other hand, the legal system is so flexible it is often bent in favor of the wealthy and powerful, should be permanently rejected as a state option.

Which brings us to Rosales’ observation that Ordinario-Villanueva, Credo and Batain were victimized by the drug syndicates without their knowing it, and by the “inflexibilities” of the Chinese judicial system.

Were Credo and company indeed “used,” without their knowledge, to smuggle heroin into China? They were after all convicted for carrying, for a fee of thousands of dollars, four to six kilos of heroin, not 50 grams or even a gram of it, which tests the credibility of any claim that they didn’t know what they had hidden in their luggage.

Some 700 Filipinos are in prison worldwide — in the rest of Asia, the United States and the Middle East — for being drug couriers, with at least 200 imprisoned in China alone. Filipinos have become part of the international drug networks whose products are ruining entire societies all over the planet, and are so involved because of the easy money running drugs for the syndicates offers. That doesn’t make them innocent, but guilty of violating the laws of the countries into which they were attempting to smuggle prohibited drugs, and of involvement in the destruction of thousands of lives.

On the other hand, as disgraceful as its existence in the criminal code and China’s imposition of the death penalty may be, that is no argument for judicial “flexibility.” Rosales seems to have mistakenly assumed that the Chinese system could be swayed by, say, the Philippine government’s importuning Chinese authorities to spare Credo and company.

The Department of Foreign Affairs could have saved the government the expense of sending Vice President Jejomar Binay off to plead the case of Ordinario-Villanueva, Credo and Batain: the DFA could have pointed out that the Chinese system isn’t so “flexible” as to undermine itself by ignoring its own laws.

Since 1949, when the People’s Republic of China was founded, critics have argued for the need to institutionalize the rule of law in China — meaning the creation of a judicial system that will implement the law consistently and impartially. China has since then put such a system in place, and has been known to execute even high-ranking government officials found guilty of corruption. Its “inflexibility” has paid off by helping make China a world power and its economy the second largest in the world. It is not so much the inflexibility of that system that matters, but the wisdom and humanity of the laws, for example the death penalty, that the system is implementing.

But Rosales seems to have been thinking of the Philippine judicial system, which is crammed with laws that should make the country into a model of justice and fairness, as well as a show case of progress, order and development — if only they were being properly implemented, or even implemented at all. Instead, otherwise well-meaning laws are distorted by, among other institutions, a judicial system so “flexible” it allows laws to be interpreted in exact opposition to what they intend. (For example, the Party List law.)
If a law is unjust, unfair, or of doubtful value to a society and its people, it has to be repealed rather than interpreted with the “flexibility” that characterizes the Philippine judicial system. It is precisely the “flexibility” of that system that has been contributing to the undoing of this country, and consigning it to its present state of lawlessness and penury.


Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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