Students, academics fight Duterte’s death penalty bill

Students and professors from Ateneo de Manila University, or AdMU, marched on campus on 31 January in the Philippines capital Manila against a bill that would reinstate the death penalty in the country.

“At its core, this is a struggle for the recognition and demand for respect of human rights, and the life and dignity of all persons,” said Luis Enriquez, coordinator of AdMU’s Task Force SIKHAY, which organised the gathering, the first organised protest by students against the proposed measure, which is currently up for debate in Congress.

In December, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte alarmed critics when he promised to kill five to six criminals every day once the death penalty is reinstated. He has urged lawmakers to prioritise the bill, arguing it will deter criminals and drug addicts.

The bill is still in its early stages as deliberations began in Congress just last month. Even if the measure gains the majority support it needs in both the lower and upper house, it may not pass into law until later this year.

Resistance begins

AdMU, one of the country’s oldest universities, is part of a network of ‘Universities Against the Death Penalty’ based at the University of Oslo in Norway. The network of 39 universities around the world has pledged to support the abolition of capital punishment.

"Academic freedom is fundamental, and universities as institutions should not normally take a stance on political issues. However, there are times through history when universities have joined forces, as they did against apartheid and against slavery. We believe the fight against the death penalty has the same kind of urgency," Ole Petter Ottersen, rector of the University of Oslo, has said.

“One of the most important things that universities are based on is that in every society the value of life is the primary value,” said network director Lill Scherdin, a criminologist. “The character of a university in a democratic society is at odds with the death penalty. Students should feel free to speak out.”

In addition to AdMU’s anti-death penalty march last month, student activists in the Philippines also observed legislative hearings at the House of Representatives or lower house, and held a candlelight vigil “against measures which will dim the horizon for many Filipinos, especially the poor, who are vulnerable to abuse”, according to AdMU’s Enriquez.

Student groups have broader concerns, including that the death penalty could be misused for political purposes, and would unfairly impact on the poor and those unable to defend themselves.

“There has been a trend of criminalising progressives and activists in the past, so we think this [bill] might be a move to attack people who are critical against the government,” said Aries Gupit, national secretary-general of the League of Filipino Students, a political advocacy group with more than 5,000 members from universities across the country.

Other student groups have taken a more proactive approach. Economics Towards Consciousness, an academic-political organisation based at the University of the Philippines Diliman, this month organised educational discussions in communities outside the university to spread awareness about the death penalty.

Victimising the poor

Human rights groups and Duterte’s political opponents say a death penalty will disproportionately victimise the poor – also targeted in the president’s controversial war on drugs, which has left more than 7,000 dead in the last seven months in what many regard as extra-judicial or summary killings.

“The death penalty would strengthen the campaign for the president when it comes to [fighting] criminality in the Philippines,” said Dennis Quilala, an assistant professor of political science at the University of the Philippines Diliman. “But most of us know the death penalty is not really an effective deterrent and that’s why it was abolished before.”

Capital punishment ended in 1987 after former Philippines dictator Ferdinand Marcos was removed from power. It resumed in 1999 only to be revoked again seven years later.

Allies of President Duterte filed the death penalty bill in the House of Representatives last June, sparking outrage among many human rights observers, religious groups – in this mostly Catholic country – and some government officials.

Jose Mari Jimenez, president of the De La Salle Philippines network of educational institutions, in a ‘Pastoral letter’ published by the prominent Catholic institution De La Salle University in Manila last July, said: “While we resonate with our government's desire to address in a resolute way the problems of crime, drug addiction and corruption, we need to ensure that this is done within the framework of the law and the principles of human dignity and the common good enshrined in both our Constitution and in Catholic Social Teaching.

"To this end, our schools should critically engage civil authorities to ensure that effective solutions to these social ills be pursued in the just and right way.”

AdMU also released a statement in July denouncing the proposed legislation.

Most other universities, however, have so far remained silent.