By Dennis Jay Santos
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte wants to revive the death penalty, his spokesman stressed Friday, putting him on a collision course with the Catholic Church just a day after Pope Francis called it unacceptable in all circumstances.
Duterte last year asked a Congress dominated by his allies to prioritize a bill to bring back death by electrocution, citing a runaway crime rate in Asia’s only predominantly Catholic country. The House of Representatives has approved the bill, but the Senate has not debated it.
Duterte won the presidency two years ago on a vow to rid the country of crime and he has given the police wide latitude in conducting its war on drugs, which he blamed as the root of all crime. More than 4,000 suspected pushers and addicts have died in police encounters, though rights groups say the estimate could go as high as 12,000.
“Bringing back the death penalty for serious drug-related offenses is still a priority of this administration,” presidential spokesman Harry Roque told reporters on Friday.
“But the decision is still with the Senate, after the House passed it,” he said.
Under the bill, so-called heinous crimes would be punishable by death. Those include some forms of rape and murder, as well as drug related offenses, including the import, sale, manufacture, delivery and distribution of narcotics.
“I think the matter of the death penalty is in the hands of the senators now. So we leave it to the Senate whatever decision they may have,” Roque said, even as he stressed that Duterte “would still try gentle persuasion” on the Senate.
Wrong in all cases: Vatican
Roque commented after Pope Francis issued a definitive statement that capital punishment is wrong in all cases. The stand went against the previous Catholic doctrine that the death penalty can be acceptable if the guilt of the party has been fully determined and “if this is the only possible way of effectively defending lives against the unjust aggressor.”
The Vatican said the change came about after “a new understanding has emerged of the significance of penal sanctions imposed by the state” and thus “the death penalty is inadmissible.”
The decision was arrived at just this week, and was signed by the Vatican’s prefect, Cardinal Francisco Ladaria. The Pope on Thursday also said that the church would work to abolish capital punishment around the world.
The death penalty was abolished in the Philippines in 2006 when more than 1,200 inmates on death row had their sentences commuted to life in prison. The move was orchestrated by then-President Gloria Arroyo, a staunch Catholic and a vocal opponent of death penalty who serves as House speaker and a known ally of Duterte.
Arroyo was installed as commander in chief of the country after graft-tainted leader Joseph Estrada was forced out of office over a massive corruption scandal in 2001.
Under Estrada’s term, the Philippines saw the resumption of executions in 1999 as a reaction to a rising crime wave. But the Catholic Church prevailed on Estrada a year later to issue a moratorium, which held until Arroyo took over.
Duterte, who claims that he was molested as a child by a Catholic priest, has been pushing for the death penalty.
He first stated his support for the death penalty last year, when he told Congress during an address that “capital punishment is not only about deterrence, it’s also about retribution.”
He has argued that it was necessary to instill fear among criminals, particularly drug pushers who have been emboldened over the years.
“In the Philippines, it is really an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. You took life, you must pay it with life,” Duterte had said.
Felipe Villamor in Manila contributed to this report.