Philippines President Duterte Calls for Death Penalty for Drug Possession

President Rodrigo Duterte, pictured at his first State of the Nation address in 2016 (Source: Wikimedia)

President Rodrigo Duterte has called for the introduction of the death penalty in the Philippines for a range of offences – including drug possession - as his country’s brutal slaughter of people who use drugs continues.

Speaking at his second State of the Nation address, he called on Congress to “act on all pending legislation to reimpose [the] death penalty [for] heinous crime[s]”.

The “heinous crimes” that Duterte refers to are included in a list of offences in a piece of legislation currently pending in the Senate – House Bill 4727, which calls for the reintroduction of the death penalty for certain crimes. Among the offences covered by the legislation is the "possession of dangerous drugs".

The bill states that "the penalty of life imprisonment TO DEATH ... shall be imposed upon any person, who, unless authorised by law, shall possess any dangerous drug … regardless of the degree of purity”. To be eligible for the death penalty, a person must be in possession of drugs above a threshold - 10 grams of cannabis resin, opium, morphine, heroin, cocaine, MDMA, or methamphetamine, or 500 grams of herbal cannabis.

In March, members of the House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly in favour of the bill, but it is awaiting Senate approval.

During his speech, Duterte emphasised that revenge is a key reason for reintroducing the death penalty. "It is time for us to fulfil our mandate to protect our people. […] For so long we have to act decisively on this contentious issue. Capital punishment is not only about deterrence, it's also about retribution," he claimed.

"Our criminal system uses the revised penal code. That is a law given to us by the Spaniards, the original revised penal code, though it was translated into English. And those two books, the definition of crimes and the penalties and everything, and the thrust of that revised penal code, ladies and gentlemen, is the essence of retribution. That is why you have penalty," Duterte said, “In the Philippines, it’s really an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”.

President Duterte has led a mass extrajudicial slaughter of people, primarily poor people, under the guise of a war on drugs since he was inaugurated in June 2016. Many people are being killed by anonymous death squads, and there have been persistent allegations of the murders being coordinated – or even committed – by police.

During his State of the Nation address, he denounced showing leniency to people who commit drug offences, and expressed doubt that prison could rehabilitate people – insisting that capital punishment was the only option for certain crimes. In his typically crude style, he warned that someone who commits a drug offence is a “son of a bitch, a human being that has a virulent brain and his enemy is society”.

It is unclear if the Senate will pass House Bill 4727. In April, one senator claimed that the bill is "dead" due to lack of support, however Duterte's recent speech may reenergise those who support capital punishment. Importantly, whether the bill is passed or not, it seems that the mass killing of people for alleged drug offences – outside of the justice system – will continue.

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