Unless the Supreme Court intervenes, the execution of death convicts Roderick Licayan and Roberto Lara, who are scheduled to die by lethal injection on January 30, is likely to go through.

The only other earthly power that can stop the executions is President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. Mrs. Arroyo, however, appears unmoved by the petitions of the anti-death penalty groups including the Catholic Church. She seems equally unmoved by two other suspects’ clearing Lara of involvement in the kidnappings for which he and Licayan had been convicted.

Two other suspects in the same crime, Pedro Mabansag and Rogelio de los Reyes, were arrested recently. Both have said that Lara had nothing to do with the kidnapping of businessman Joseph Tomas Co and his assistant Linda Manaysay.

De Los Reyes and Mabansag will be arraigned on February 9, or more than a week after Lara and Licayan shall have been executed. That they will be undergoing trial after their fellow accused are dead, and their statement that Lara and Licayan had nothing to do with the crime, have led Public Attorney’s Office (PAO) chief Persida Rueda-Acosta to file an urgent motion before the Supreme Court to order the stay of execution of Lara and Licayan and to re-open their cases.

“It would be very much absurd,” said Rueda-Acosta, “to go to trial with the other named suspects…(while allowing) the executions of Licayan and Lara to proceed,” since all four and five others still at large are charged in the same case.

Not only have his co-accused denied that Lara had anything to do with the kidnapping, thus suggesting more than reasonable doubt as to his guilt. Also part of the absurdity is that both Lara and Licayan could very well be proven innocent during the trial of De Los Reyes and Mabansag, but shall have been executed by the time that happens. The horrible possibility is that an imperfect justice system will once more kill two people about whose guilt there is at least reasonable doubt—and who may be proven innocent.

At this time no one knows if the Supreme Court will or can act on the PAO’s motion, or if it does, if it will act favorably on it. Mrs. Arroyo can do both if she wishes. Judging from the statements that have been emanating from the Palace, however, she appears unlikely to do so. The overriding reason is the context, primarily if not solely political, in which Mrs. Arroyo lifted the moratorium on the death penalty.

Mrs. Arroyo’s and her subaltern’s statements have the ring of finality in them. This was especially true in their response to the visit by European Union ambassadors to the National Penitentiary’s Death Row, which the latter made to dramatize the EU’s opposition to the death penalty.

While the EU position was “well taken,” said Presidential Spokesman Ignacio Bunye, the Arroyo government expects the European ambassadors (from Austria, Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Sweden, Spain and the United Kingdom) “to respect the President’s stand on the issue as an internal matter with respect to Philippine justice and the rule of law.”

Another Arroyo bureaucrat, Bureau of Corrections Director Dionisio Santiago, who was charged with escorting the ambassadors around the National Penitentiary’s Death Row last Thursday, told the ambassadors something they already knew—only Congress could abolish the death penalty—but could not help expressing his own primitive views about the wisdom of capital punishment.

Santiago said “We need the death penalty here to teach the criminals a lesson.” That’s an opinion worth less than the two-cent value usually assigned to such uninformed issuances, because it suggests that it’s not the individual cases, but the examples they will supposedly set, that’s prompting the Arroyo government to kill people convicted by a flawed justice system.

Santiago’s statement, however, only echoes that of his boss Mrs. Arroyo, who has said exactly the same thing in response to the anti-death penalty groups including the Catholic Church. Indeed Mrs. Arroyo, despite her claims to being a devout Catholic, lifted the moratorium on the death penalty last December to pander to the death penalty advocates, whom she hopes will translate their approval into votes this May.

The May election is the one overwhelming factor that’s likely to lead to Lara and Licayan’s execution—which should prove once more that Philippine politics is not only stupid, but that it also kills in ways Filipinos had previously not imagined.

Mrs. Arroyo does not relish disappointing the death penalty mob. She doesn’t want to add further proof to the perception that she is a weak, vacillating leader either. And even in the unlikely event that she does stop the executions of Lara and Licayan, other executions will take place anyway, including that of an 82-year-old woman convicted of drug-trafficking, and other inmates convicted of kidnapping and drug-related offenses.

Mrs. Arroyo has justified the lifting of the moratorium on executions by saying that it’s what the public wants—i.e., it’s what’s popular—despite her claim to being morally opposed to the death penalty. It might well be true that the death penalty is widely supported by a mostly uninformed citizenry. Mrs. Arroyo is thus pandering to the crowd rather than acting on her convictions. Thus the charge by some Catholic Church leaders that what Mrs. Arroyo is not only a hypocrite, but is also driven by what’s popular.

Lives are in short being traded for politics, popularity being the primary determinant in Philippine politics of who gets to sit in Malacanang for the next six years. The chilling possibility is that if it were up to Mrs. Arroyo, no argument no matter how well-documented, brilliantly-argued and creatively-presented can sway her at this time, when the elections are only a scant four months away

And yet the death penalty issue goes far beyond any election. It involves the essential questions of justice, human rights and effective governance.

No justice system is so perfect that it cannot make mistakes. The Philippine justice system is especially imperfect, with its corrupt and brutal police, which habitually extract confessions through torture, and a judiciary biased against the poor through, among others, its capacity to be swayed by the pricey lawyers the poor cannot afford. If, as has been repeatedly pointed out, the justice system of the more developed states of Europe and the United States (which uniquely among developed countries still has the death penalty and where dozens of death convicts have been found to be innocent even after their execution) can err, so can that of a third world country like the Philippines—as indeed the Lara and Licayan cases suggest.

On the other hand, how effective a deterrent to crime is the death penalty? A vast number of studies say not much, compared to the efficient and equal application of the law. What is fairly well established is that the certainty that one will be punished if one commits a crime is a more effective deterrent than the promised severity of a penalty.

There is in fact more than ample proof that the deterrence argument has been settled in favor of those opposed to the death penalty by statistical and other evidence, among them evidence that crimes such as murder are not significantly less in death penalty regimes, and that such crimes are less in many European countries that have abolished the death penalty.

No matter. After the orgy of party-switching and total lack of principle we have so far seen in this political season among the politicians, nothing is impossible, and anything can happen. That includes, for the sake of politics, the killing of people who may well be innocent, and the continuing implementation of a policy that makes no sense except to satisfy the mob’s desire for vengeance and death.

(Today/abs-cbnNEWs.com, January 17, 2004)

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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