human rights in the Philippines

CHR, NBI: Bill amending anti-drug law unconstitutional

Mara Cepeda
Human Rights Commissioner Karen Dumpit says the bill 'violates the constitutional precept of presumption of innocence' and will 'pose a great danger or great threat to common people than drug syndicates'

The Commission on Human Rights (CHR) and the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) told Senate panels on Tuesday, May 25, that the bill providing legal presumptions on who is considered an importer, financier, or protector of illegal drugs violates the 1987 Constitution.

CHR and NBI officials were among the resource persons invited to the Senate hearing on House Bill (HB) No. 7814, which aims to give more teeth to Republic Act No. 9165 or the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act of 2002. 

Senator Ronald dela Rosa, who once led President Rodrigo Duterte’s bloody war against drugs as the country’s top cop, led the hearing as chairman of the Senate committee on public order and dangerous drugs.

CHR Commissioner Karen Dumpit said the proposed bill’s provisions on legal presumptions on drug-related offenses under HB 7814 is unconstitutional.

She zeroed in on a provision that states that “unless proven otherwise,” a person found present in the immediate vicinity of an area where illegal drugs are being sold, delivered, or distributed “is presumed to have been involved” in the illegal drug trade. 

“These people will be forced prove that they are innocent and it changes the scheme of things, because the government – with all its powers and resources –  would just have to sit down and watch how these hapless individuals move heaven and earth that government was mistaken,” said Dumpit. 

“The bill violates the constitutional precept of presumption of innocence, which is a deep-seated and a core value of our system. It will also pose a great danger or great threat to common people than drug syndicates,” added the CHR commissioner.

This was echoed by NBI Task Force Against Illegal Drugs chief Ross Jonathan Galicia who said the measure would in effect impose a “reverse trial” on drug suspects.

“We raise our concerns with numerous presumptions on the proposed bill because instead of the government proving the guilty of the accused, it will be the accused proving his innocence. We’re going to have a reverse trial,” said Galicia, a lawyer.

Duterte has been criticized for his bloody campaign against drugs where thousands of drug suspects have been killed in legitimate police operations and vigilante-style killings. 

Rappler’s investigations have showed a systemic delay in the criminal probe into these drug-related deaths. Police reports on anti-drug operations submitted to the Supreme Court were also poorly documented, casting doubt on the legitimacy of Duterte’s drug war. 

The Department of Justice (DOJ) disagreed with the CHR and NBI.

State counsel Don Rick Ventura told the Senate panels that the DOJ does “not conform that the foregoing legislation is a presumption of guilt.”

“It clearly states in the legislation that the presumption is only prime facie evidence, which means the evidence is as good and sufficient in its face and may be rebutted or contradicted. Unless it is rebutted or contradicted, it will remain sufficient to prove the facts,” said Ventura. 

House committee on dangerous drugs chair Robert Ace Barbers earlier said that HB 7814 has safeguards against abuses by law enforcement agents.

‘Unnecessary’ jail time

Other officials from the Duterte government also pointed to the problematic provisions of HB 7814.

The Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) raised issues over Section 12 of the bill,  which would impose jail time on an individual found positive for drug use but is not considered as a drug dependent.

PDEA director Randy Pedroso said such a punishment is “unnecessary” and could be detrimental to the person in need of health interventions. 

“The proposed penalty of imprisonment to a person positive for using dangerous drugs who is not drug dependent is too severe and could worsen the condition of the concerned individual. Such punishment is unnecessary, considering that such condition may be addressed with proper interventions,” said Pedroso. 

The Department of Health (DOH) also said the bill should not impose a strict timeframe on the treatment and rehabilitation of drug dependents.

“Drug dependency is a continuous and repeating problem for individuals. A flexible timeframe allotted for treatment, rehabilitation, and after care will allow physicians to tailor suit treatment programs for [drug dependents’] needs and requirements,” said Dr Jose Bienvenido Leabres, who heads the DOH’s Drug Prevention and Treatment Program.

After hearing all invited resource persons speak, Dela Rosa said a technical working group will be formed to thresh out the proposed amendments under HB 7814. The Senate does not have a counterpart measure yet. – Rappler.com

Mara Cepeda

Mara Cepeda specializes in stories about politics and local governance. She covers the Office of the Vice President, the Senate, and the Philippine opposition. She is a 2021 fellow of the Asia Journalism Fellowship and the Reham al-Farra Memorial Journalism Fellowship of the UN. Got tips? Email her at mara.cepeda@rappler.com or tweet @maracepeda.