The Death Penalty in the Philippines

The Philippines is no stranger to the death penalty, having seen its use since the late 1800s and abolishing it twice- even being the first country in Asia to abolish the practice. Capital punishment is a very divisive matter. Of course, executing a person for crimes is an act that has regularly occurred in history for thousands of years. In these modern ages, though, many countries have abolished the act or limited it to very specific circumstances. That may change for the Philippines, however, with a new bill to reimpose the death penalty seeing approval in the House of Representatives last December 2016.

The history

The death penalty was widely used during rebellions when the Philippines was still under Spanish colonial rule. The most common methods of execution were the firing squad and garrote (which is death by strangulation). Spanish rulers did not bother to strongly use capital punishment in times of relative peace and were more concerned with keeping their power than executing large masses of people. “Out of more than 1,700 murder convicts condemned to die from 1840 to 1855, the Spanish only executed 46 of them,” Marcus Vaflor writes in an article.

When the United States ruled the Philippines, they implemented the death penalty through the electric chair, making the Philippines the only other country to use the electric chair (aside from America).

In 1946, when the USA acknowledged the independence of the Philippines, crimes that were punishable by the death penalty included murder, treason, and rape. No executions were carried out until April 1950. An execution I want to mention is that of Marciál “Baby” Ama’s who was only 16 when he was killed. He was sentenced to death by electric chair after leading one of the biggest prison riots in history, which lead to the death of nine inmates. Fifty-one people were killed by the electric chair up to 1961. From 1965 to 1986, President Ferdinand Marcos used the death penalty greatly to instill fear during his rule, even broadcasting executions sometimes. Notably, three men were executed for kidnapping and gang-raping actress Maggie dela Riva, which was ordered to be televised. Under Marcos’s rule, drug trafficking was also punishable by death (which is the same thing Duterte is trying to establish). Death by firing squad became relatively popular again under Marcos (as opposed to the electric chair); Lim Seng was charged with drug trafficking and was killed by a firing squad. His execution was also televised. Marcos’s regime ended in 1986, and the death penalty was abolished in 1987. This marked the first time an Asian country abolished the practice.

However, the death penalty returned under President Fidel Ramos in 1993 in response to rising crime rates in the country. The method of execution became lethal injection. Originally, it was supposed to be the gas chamber, but the USA refused to sell it to the Philippines and instead sold them equipment to be used for lethal injections. However, nobody was executed until 1999; Leo Echegaray, who was convicted of raping his 10-year-old stepdaughter. An interesting event also happened under Ramos, where the president tried to cancel an execution, but could not contact prison officials due to a busy telephone. Eduardo Agbayani was executed at 3:11 PM that day; Ramos only managed to contact the prison a minute later.

In 2006, under President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, the death penalty was abolished a second time. The president commuted the sentences of 1,230 convicts on death row to life imprisonment instead. This is the largest commutation of death sentences, according to Amnesty International.

What’s happening now?

Yet another death penalty bill was created last year, to combat the rising drug problem in the Philippines, and it experienced a swift approval at the first reading of the Committee of the House of Representatives. Major changes have been made to the bill, however. A caucus in February 2017 resulted in treason, plunder, and rape being removed from the list of offenses punishable by death. The reasoning is that with a fewer amount of crimes on the list, the easier it would be to reach a consensus, which could not be previously attained. This may also allow the Senate to pass the bill faster. After the second reading of the House of Representatives, only drug-related crimes may be punishable by death. For me, this is questionable because there are crimes worse than drug trafficking which should also merit this punishment. Corruption and plunder are also things the current president has vowed to root out, so why not apply the death penalty to those too?

The bill has passed the third and final reading just this month (March) in the House of Representatives. Lawmakers involved who voted against the bill are being removed from higher-ranking positions, in order to get rid of obstacles for the bill. Notably, former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo took the same stance she did as president in 2006 and voted against the bill, consequently losing her position as a deputy speaker. Eleven other lawmakers were also removed from key posts.

The bill has not yet been approved by the Senate. Only time will tell what the future of the Philippines will bring.

The death penalty is not just about politics and crime; it is about people. Whether it passes or not will change how people view life and death, especially regarding crime. We cannot tell if the death penalty would help Filipinos or harm them more. The country’s already abolished it twice… I’m sure we will abolish it a third time.


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