Makabayan: Bill amending anti-drug law 'whittles down' presumption of innocence

The 6 progressive lawmakers from the Makabayan bloc expressed their “resounding objection” to a recently approved House bill providing legal presumptions on who is considered a drug importer, financier, or coddler.

In a statement on Thursday, March 4, the Makabayan bloc said the legal presumptions that House Bill (HB) No. 7814 would add to the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act “favor” law enforcement agents, giving them “too much leeway” to arrest suspects “regardless of their actual participation in alleged drug transactions.”

“With at least 30 presumptions against mere suspects and favoring PNP (Philippine National Police), PDEA (Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency), and other law enforcement agents, House Bill 7814 whittles down the constitutional presumption of innocence to a mere sliver,” said the legislators.

The Makabayan bloc includes Bayan Muna Representatives Carlos Zarate, Ferdinand Gaite, and Eufemia Cullamat, ACT Teachers Representative France Castro, Gabriela Women’s Party Representative Arlene Brosas, and Kabataan Representative Sarah Elago.

They are among the only 11 legislators who voted against HB No. 7814.

The House – where a majority are President Rodrigo Duterte’s allies – approved the bill just days after the shootout between PNP and PDEA agents – the vanguards of Duterte’s landmark but deadly campaign against illegal drugs

The Makabayan bloc said the legal presumptions against drug suspects under HB No. 7814 are rooted in the presumption of regularity in law enforcement agents’ operations. 

But Duterte has been widely criticized for his anti-drug campaign, where thousands of drug suspects have been killed in legitimate police operations and vigilante-style killings.

In defending the killings, police officers commonly say that the suspects fought back while resisting arrest or “nanlaban.”

These presumptions should have no place even if the country were not under a climate of impunity and or does not have the horrendous human rights record that it has now,” Makabayan said. 

But House committee on dangerous drugs chair Robert Ace Barbers, a primary bill author, countered criticism against HB No. 7814.

He said the burden of proof that a drug suspect is guilty of a crime still rests on the prosecution, while the suspect has the burden to present evidence that the accusations against him or her are wrong.

Barbers also denied accusations the bill would violate the presumption of innocence of an accused enshrined under the Constitution.

Not enough protection for journalists

The progressive lawmakers were also dissatisfied with a provision under HB No. 7814 meant to protect journalists covering drug operations.

They said the phrasing of this provision is “by no means an unequivocal prohibition” for law enforcement agents to require journalists to sign inventories. 

The provision reads: “Members of the media may be invited to join/cover anti-drug operations of the government for journalism purposes only. Details and facts about the operation should not be used as a condition for the reporter to sign the inventory.”

“Journalists will still be dragged into drug operations and compelled to legitimize illegal operations and seizures…. Worse, the practice of compelling members of the media to sign inventories even if they did not actually witness the operation or the seizure of the items will continue,” said Makabayan.

The legislators then reiterated their belief that the drug problem will only be eradicated through effective law enforcement, public accountability, good governance, and competent officials at the helm of agencies fighting illegal drugs. 

Muntinlupa Representative Ruffy Biazon, a known advocate for the security sector, also voted against and even withdrew his authorship of HB No. 7814, saying that the final version of the measure institutionalizes the “presumption of guilt” of drug suspects. – Rappler.com

Mara Cepeda

Mara Cepeda writes about politics and women’s rights for Rappler. She covers the Senate and the Office of the Vice President. Got tips? Send her an email at mara.cepeda@rappler.com or shoot her a tweet @maracepeda.

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