by Fr. Shay Cullen
15 July 2106
A few weeks ago, the Philippine nation and the world that cares for children’s rights and human dignity learned that the new speaker of the House of Representatives of the Philippine Congress has filed two proposed laws that will 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 it), 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 criminalize children and the civil society is also adamantly against it.
The Catholic Church has strongly spoken against the death penalty and we wait for a statement from the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines to support the retention of the 15-years-old age of liability for children. It is very wrong to blame children for the crimes of adults.
It is anti-poor and anti-child welfare laws and violates international conventions. If adult gangsters do use children to further their crimes, 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 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 facing the death penalty. It is not likely but the implications are that children and teenagers could, according to the proposed laws, face the death penalty. This attitude sees them as pests to be eliminated.
This deplorable attitude gave rise to the death squads in Davao City in the past twenty years and the use of vigilantes and assassins has spread to other cities and many youth and minors were assassinated. (See Human Rights Watch report “You Can Die Anytime” and also Human Rights Watch report “A Shot to the Head: Death Squads in Tagum)
In 1999, the Preda Foundation social workers and this writer 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 and had to defend myself.
No lawyer in Davao 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 arranged in court in Davao City. I flew into 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 fifty 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 as drums and they surrounded me as a 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 one thousand 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 the bars of the jail for the children’s right to live and for everyone’s freedom of speech.
The mayor at the time (not President Rodrigo Duterte) chose to withdraw the charges at the last minute in a courtroom drama as I was about to be arraigned. Six months later, the decision from the Department of Justice in Manila stated that I was innocent and there was no case to answer 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.