Communists, rapists, drug addicts, pushers also have human rights

Sylvia Estrada Claudio
Communists, rapists, drug addicts, pushers also have human rights
'I have seen how an allegiance to human rights protects the innocent, stays the hand of the unjust, and can be used to bring justice upon the powerful'

I am not the type to keep clippings or recordings of my public appearances. My experience after having been around for several decades in this media-driven world is that any ordinary person can accumulate quite a number of these things through the decades.

I have always followed the advice of the renowned philosopher Bertrand Russel, and that is: to be happy, we have to minimize the ego and realize that, in a century or two, even the most eminent among us will be unknowns. All the philosophical and spiritual great ones are united in this: the key to happiness is to minimize the ego. And some habits help, such as ignoring public praise or trolling.

I do apologize to the reader for beginning with a digression. Bad writing style. But the topic I want to write about gave me the opportunity for a mental health and media literacy message. So I took the opportunity. And I will get back to humility and its relationship to compassion towards the end.

But let me get to the point. Despite my protestations about not being enamored with news clippings, I have kept a few. I dug out one the other day in preparation for writing this. It is a front page picture of one of our leading broadsheets on January 26, 1999. It which shows 3 feminist leaders, myself included, speaking out against the pending execution of the rapist Leo Echegaray

Some readers may not be aware that, for the last 30 years, I have been giving free counseling services to victims of rape, sexual harassment, and other forms of violence. You can imagine how difficult the decision was for me to come to his “defense.”

His execution and the attempts to stay it caused a national debate. It was the first time anyone had been executed in 23 years. The last execution before Echegaray’s was in 1976, and the death penalty was abolished in 1987

Then President Joseph Estrada had come to power, like the current President, promising to be tough on corruption and law and order. Then as now, the death penalty was seen as an important weapon in fighting crime. And the same debates and arguments we had then are happening now. It would seem that we had accepted that the death penalty is barbarous and achieves nothing when we took it off the table again in 2006. But the nation seems to have forgotten that we have had this debate before. 

Anyone with an open mind can easily become educated about why the death penalty should be abolished. A simple internet search will reveal that most governments and most international and national human rights bodies do not find the death penalty acceptable. It does not deter crime, there is always a miscarriage of justice in any system and the innocent are killed. It is the poor, the dark skinned, the less powerful, and the marginalized who are more often – if not exclusively – executed, whether they are guilty or not.

But I wish to highlight a specific argument that is being made again these days. What of those whom we are reasonably sure are guilty of a heinous crime? Do they not deserve death? Not because this would deter crime, but for the simple reason that their actions no longer give them the right to live.

This was the case of Leo Echegaray. I had no doubt in my mind that he was guilty of raping his stepdaughter when she was only 10 years old and doing so repeatedly. I have no doubt he threatened her to keep silent and kept her in fear. Like most abusive men, he refused to admit to his guilt, instead blaming others for his situation. He also seemed unable to recognize the harm he had done and the consequences of that harm. He did not seem to have a shred of remorse.

In my mind, there is no crime more heinous than raping a young girl who is placed in your trust. I should know. By the time the case of Echegaray exploded in the media, I had been counseling with rape and incest survivors for more than a decade.

I also have a rule of thumb in matters of justice. Almost always, I will support what the victim wants. And the victim had spoken for execution.

Yet, after a period of discernment, I decided to come out against Echegaray’s execution. My reasoning in the end was very simple: human rights apply to all. They do not apply only to those who agree with us or those we find decent or good or acceptable. They apply to the ones who disagree, the ones we find condemnable, unacceptable, or evil. They apply to the outliers and the minority. They apply indeed most especially to these people. Without these basic guarantees, democracy cannot prevail. And there is no more fundamental right than the right to life.

I have read current apologists for fascism and terrorism put down human rights as a luxury of the educated, the elite, and the comfortable. From the mouthpieces of ISIS/ISIL/Daesh, to the political campaigns of rightist politicians like Donald Trump, to the pundits who refuse to condemn the extrajudicial killings being carried out under this administration, we are told that the call for human rights is hypocritical. Many argue that advocates like me do not see that human rights protect the guilty and help them victimize the innocent. Many argue that the biggest human rights violators, say US imperialists, are never brought to justice.

All this may be true because justice is imperfect. But I have also seen the opposite. I have seen how an allegiance to human rights protects the innocent, stays the hand of the unjust, and can be used to bring justice upon the powerful. I have seen how human rights standards ensure the dignity of every human being.

It was my experience working during the martial law years that made me understand. During the years of martial law many Filipino (communists and non-communists) were killed and tortured by the military. In the minds of these men, the communists were a threat to the nation and the violation of their human rights was justified to ensure the safety of the people.

During the martial law years I witnessed the killings of activists who were indeed guilty of what the Marcos regime accused them of: subversion. Many of us indeed wanted the government to fall because it was unjust, corrupt, and illegitimate. But many of the exhumations of mass graves I attended were not of armed combatants (no human rights standards are violated when armed combatants are killed in battle) but of activists working within legal parameters. But Marcos and his military found these young kids too threatening and too evil. In their minds this was necessary for the Republic. So they killed them without due process, often using the same excuses we are hearing now: they tried to escape, they shot it out with us, etc.

Many times, the only weapon we could use to save a few people from torture or death was the pressure coming from human rights organizations like the United Nations or Amnesty International. These same organizations who are now reviled by this administration and its apologists.

Truly the application of justice is partial, uneven, and hypocritical. But that does not mean those standards are wrong. My experience tells me that without these basic human rights standards we can only continue in a game where the powerful decide who is right and wrong, who dies and who lives. 

I asked myself if Leo Echegaray, despite my revulsion, was a human being. And I realized that, yes, tao siya (he is a person). And as such I had to grant him the full protection of human rights. More so because I hated his guts. As much as I hate the guts of the corrupt and the drug lords.

So I took a deep breath and agreed to join a press conference calling for mercy toward someone who epitomized almost everything I hate and everything I had been fighting against.

I didn’t regret it then. I do not now. I have been showing my children the old and yellowed clipping.

Unfortunately, we are worse off today. At least Leo Echegaray had due process. The sick drug addicts (yes, dear reader, it’s an illness), the low level pushers, and the innocent bystanders are being executed without seeing a judge.

We are a better people than this. In Cambodia, as I visited the museums and looked at skull after skull of the millions of people their dictator Pol Pot killed on his way to his safe and prosperous utopia, I breathed a grateful thought: “Mapagpatawad and mga Pinoy. Makatao.” (Filipinos are forgiving and humane.) My heart swelled as my Cambodian friend mentioned how our courage as a people during the Marcos years  should have been a standard for her own people so that the killings could not have gone as far as they did.

We pride ourselves on many virtues, including humility (pagpapakumbaba). And it takes only a little bit of humility and only a little bit of compassion to understand that whatever else you think of the other person, it should not be in our hands to take that person’s life. It takes a large amount of arrogance or lack of compassion or fear to turn one’s back and say, “Pinagsabihan na kasi kayo tumuloy pa kayo”. (You were warned and yet your proceeded.) In what way do we know this when they had no due process?  And where comes the hard-heartedness of those who say, “Sorry, innocent people, you are collateral damage, but we need to do this to be safe.”

Those are the ways not of the brave but of the frightened. These are the ways of the bully.

Call me elitist if you wish, but it bothers me that the majority of those killed are poor people. Call me hypocritical,  but I cannot stomach that innocent people are caught in the crossfire.

No matter how guilty these people are, no matter how frustrated we are with the justice system, even the guilty deserve human rights. To think otherwise is to put all of us in danger. It is to exchange the momentary release of blood lust and the fleeting silence caused by intimidation with the insidious danger of the loss of protections for all. Those who lived during martial law know this. At first the killings did not involve people like me and you.

As I fought in the ’70s and the ’80s for the communists killed by the Marcos regime, as I spoke for the rapist Leo Echegraya in 1999 under Estrada, so I will speak now for the drug addicts and pushers under the Duterte administration.

Stop these extra judicial killings now. –  

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