SONA 2020

Death penalty unlikely to hurdle Senate unless limited to drug lords – Sotto

JC Gotinga

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Death penalty unlikely to hurdle Senate unless limited to drug lords – Sotto

Senate opens 2nd Regular Session: Senators sing the national anthem during the opening of the 2nd Regular Session of the 18th Congress Monday, July 27, 2020. Some senators, led by Senate President Vicente Sotto III, will proceed to the House of Representatives in the afternoon to hear the President’s 5th State of the Nation Address in a hybrid joint session. (Henzberg Austria/Senate PRIB)

Richard Gordon, who heads the Senate committee on justice and human rights, opposes the death penalty, and says he won't hold any hearings on the bill

Senators are unlikely to pass a measure to reinstate the death penalty, at least during the current session of Congress, said Senate President Vicente Sotto III on Tuesday, July 28.

However, if capital punishment would be applied only to convicted drug lords, then it would have a better chance of hurdling the Senate, Sotto added.

“If it’s confined to high-level drug trafficking, we stand a good chance of having it passed. Otherwise, I’m telling you now, mahihirapan na pagka hindi ganoon (it would be difficult if it’s not done that way),” Sotto told reporters in a virtual briefing on Tuesday.

Although Sotto, as a senator, helped argue for the death penalty in the early 1990s, he said he now sees the point of those who opposed it. Executing the wrong suspect is indeed possible “in about 95% of crimes,” he said.

Drug lords are different, Sotto said: “Una sa lahat, napakadaling ma-identify talaga ng high level drug trafficker eh…. Walang mahirap na drug lord so hindi uubra ‘yung sinasabi nilang anti-poor.” (First of all, it’s really so easy to identify a high-level trafficker…. No drug lord is poor, so they can’t say it’s anti-poor.)

Critics of the death penalty say poor suspects are less able to get competent help for their legal defense, so they are more likely to be meted capital punishment.

This would not be true for drug lords, who can afford the best lawyers to defend their cases, Sotto said.

“So what I am saying is, regarding our colleagues who oppose the death penalty, we stand a better chance of getting them to agree if it’s confined to that group of criminals,” he added.

The Senate opened its second regular session under the 18th Congress on Monday. That afternoon, President Rodrigo Duterte in his State of the Nation Address (SONA) urged Congress to reinstate the death penalty for those convicted of violating the law against drug trafficking.

“I reiterate the swift passage of a law reviving the death penalty by lethal injection for crimes specified under the Comprehensive Dangerous [Drugs] Acts of 2002. I did not hear so much clapping so I presume that you are not interested,” Duterte said. It was the 3rd time he mentioned the death penalty during his yearly SONA.

Duterte mentioned 21 priority bills during his speech, of which 5 were meant to address the coronavirus pandemic. Sotto said the Senate would do its best to tackle all of them within a year, but the immediate priority are recovery and stimulus packages for the economy during the pandemic.

Although the President mentioned the death penalty, Sotto still thinks passing it would be improbable in the near-term.


At least 3 senators – Risa Hontiveros, Richard Gordon, and Francis Pangilinan – have expressed their opposition to the death penalty following Duterte’s SONA.

“The government should get its head in the game and focus on the biggest crisis we are facing now…. I can’t believe I need to say this, but the death penalty is no solution to the pandemic,” Hontiveros said in a statement.

“Hangga’t hindi nasusugpo ang pagkalat ng COVID, hindi makakabangon ang ekonomiya. Hindi rin matutugunan ang gutom at joblessness ng ating mga kababayan. Kung ‘buhay muna bago lahat,’ kagaya ng sinabi ni Presidente Duterte sa kanyang SONA, bakit hindi unahin ang mga buhay na nanganganib dahil sa COVID? Kung buhay muna bago lahat, bakit death penalty ang naiisip na solusyon?” Pangilinan said in a separate statement.

(As long as the spread of COVID-19 is unabated, the economy cannot recover. The hunger and joblessness of our countrymen won’t be solved. If it’s really “life before everything else,” as President Duterte said in his SONA, why not prioritize those whose lives are imperiled by COVID-19? If it’s life before anything, why is the death penalty the solution in mind?)

Gordon, who heads the Senate committee on justice and human rights, opposes the death penalty.

“I don’t think the death penalty works…. I don’t think this will be a deterrent [to crime],” Gordon said in a virtual media briefing on Tuesday.

Tayo nasanay na, ‘Drug pusher? Hayaan mo na mamatay.’ Macho talk ‘yun. (We got used to ‘Drug pusher? Let them die.’ That’s macho talk.) What if it happens to our children?” Gordon added.

Gordon said he used to be in favor of the death penalty, especially right after his father, Olongapo Mayor James Gordon, was assassinated in 1967. But when he saw the assassin languish in prison, Gordon said he became convinced that was a better punishment than death.

“So you do not rob justice of its conclusion,” he added.

Besides, the Philippines is a signatory to treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, preventing it from enforcing capital punishment. To do so would require the Senate to repeal these ratified treaties, Gordon said.

In the Philippines, killings abound even in broad daylight, he added. Killers won’t be deterred by capital punishment, especially when the government seems unable to catch them in the first place.

“I’m not going to hold a hearing. I don’t believe it. But if they insist, then I’ll hold a hearing, and if they think I am not fair, I’ll hand it over to them,” Gordon said.

Narrower application

In recent Philippine history, the death penalty was reinstated in 1993 but the first execution was carried out in 1999. President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo suspended its implementation in 2006.

In July 2019, Sotto filed Senate Bill 495, proposing to reinstate capital punishment for drug violators. On Tuesday, Sotto said he wants to narrow the proposal’s application to just “high-value drug traffickers.”

If Gordon is unwilling to conduct hearings of the proposal, Sotto said a justice and human rights sub-committee can be formed, led by Senator Manny Pacquiao or Sotto himself, along with other supporters of capital punishment like senators Panfilo Lacson and Ronald dela Rosa.

“I will make myself available only if it is confined to high-level drug trafficking, not just drug trafficking. Drug trafficking can be in many forms, maraming masasagasaan dun na mga low-level o mga street pusher (it may drag in many low-level or street pushers), and I am not supportive as far as that is concerned,” the Senate President said. –

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JC Gotinga

JC Gotinga often reports about the West Philippine Sea, the communist insurgency, and terrorism as he covers national defense and security for Rappler. He enjoys telling stories about his hometown, Pasig City. JC has worked with Al Jazeera, CNN Philippines, News5, and CBN Asia.