A FEW weeks ago, the Philippines and the world that care for children’s rights and human dignity learned that the new Speaker of the House of Philippine Congress has filed two proposed laws, which would lower the age of criminal liability for children in conflict with the law to nine years old and reintroduce the death penalty by hanging.
This is draconian and oppressive for children and not worthy of the Duterte administration and the Philippine people. The children are innocent, most are illiterate, abandoned, neglected and failed by society and government. The children, younger than 15, are being used by criminals to commit crimes because they cannot be prosecuted, proponents of the law say. This is baloney.
If it is true that they are being used (there is no research data or evidence to support this), the children are controlled, used and exploited by criminals and cannot act with free will or be held liable for wrongdoing. So what’s the point of criminalizing them? The children are scapegoats of uncaring authorities and an indifferent society.
The Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD), through the Juvenile Justice and Welfare Council, has strongly opposed such a move to exact criminal liability on children and the civil society is also adamantly against it.
The Catholic Church has strongly spoken against the death penalty and we await a statement from the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines to support the retention of the age of liability for children to 15. It is very wrong to blame children for the crimes of adults.
The proposed laws are anti-poor and anti-child, and violate international conventions. If adult gangsters do use children to further their crimes, say, on illegal drugs, they are guilty of child abuse and exploitation, and they ought to be arrested and tried for child abuse and drug possession. The children, with the appropriate help and support, can easily testify against the criminals.
The courageous police should arrest the drug lords, not the children. If children are ever used as drug “mules” or carriers of illegal drugs as some law enforcers contend, then children at nine years old could be meted the death sentence. It is not likely, but the implications are that children and teenagers could, according to the proposed laws, face the death penalty. The proposed laws see the said children as pests to be eliminated.
This deplorable attitude gave rise to the death squads in Davao City over the past 20 years, and the use of vigilantes and assassins has spread to other cities and many youth and minors were assassinated (see Human Rights Watch reports “You Can Die Anytime” and “A Shot to the Head: Death Squads in Tagum”).
In 1999, the Preda Foundation (www.preda.org) social workers and this writer had opposed the killing of the street children by death squads. I wrote articles about it in the press and ran a letter-writing project that called on the then-mayor of Davao City to take the responsibility to stop the killings. I was branded a suspected criminal and charged with libel, so I had to defend myself in court.
No lawyer in Davao had volunteered to help me. After two years of legal battles, I finally appealed to the Department of Justice, in Manila, for a reconsideration of the charges brought by the Davao prosecutor. There was no answer and I was to be arraigned in court in Davao City. I flew to Davao with some fear and trepidation of the notorious death squads that might be waiting for me at the airport to greet me with a shot to the head.
When I arrived at the airport and walked out the exit, I was met by a group of about 50 cheering, boisterous street children and their community workers. They had made welcome posters and placards. They blew wildly on plastic bugles and beat tin cans in place of drums, and they surrounded me as my guard of honor and protection.
With great noise and fanfare, I made it safely across the car park to a waiting jeepney and to safety in a secret location. It was a great moment. On the day of the arraignment, I appeared in the courtroom filled with media and TV cameras. I explained to the media that I had libeled no one but had asked the government to protect the children from the death squad. The official line then was that the death squad did not exist. Claiming that it did was not acceptable.
The authorities had no explanation for the alleged 1,000 dead other than to say they killed each other in a gang war. I told the media I would not pay bail and I would fight from behind bars for the children’s right to live and for everyone’s freedom of speech.
The mayor at that time (not President Rodrigo Duterte) chose to withdraw the charges at the last minute in what seemed like a courtroom drama, as I was about to be arraigned. Six months later, the decision from the DOJ stated that I was innocent and should not answer to any case leveled against me, and formal charges were dropped.
But now the death squads have reappeared and police are given shoot-to-kill orders. The bodies are piling up. We all have to speak out without fear and call for a society that respects human dignity and the rights of all.