POSTSCRIPT / June 25, 2000 / Sunday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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Not all those languishing on Death Row are guilty

SOMETHING is seriously wrong when Filipinos are required to prove that they are not members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front so the police do not gun them down like dogs in the street.

The relatives of two Muslims who were recently shot dead by Manila police operatives frantically went around gathering documents to show that the victims were not MILF members but contract personnel preparing to go abroad to work.

Why should citizens have to first prove their innocence instead of their police tormentors proving their guilt? It is the police’s duty to prove that they were MILF members, not for the suspects or their kin to prove that they were not.

Even assuming they were MILF members, is it now a crime to be a member of an organization or be part of a free assembly? Are suspected MILF members to be gunned down without question? What ever happened to our Bill of Rights?

We did not hear anybody raising this basic point while the media were teeming with updates on efforts of relatives of the two victims to dig up papers to show that they were not MILF members!

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THERE is also something seriously wrong when the Little President says something loud and clear over radio, but deletes that portion from the tape of his interview when asked by media to please give a record of what he said.

We clearly heard Executive Secretary Ronaldo Zamora tell DZMM anchor Ted Failon that the Department of Trade paid former US embassy chargé Philip Kaplan around $700,000 in 1999 for his lobbying work in the United States for the Philippine government.

But when the print media asked for the transcript of the radio interview, that part about the $700,000 was deleted. In the tape of the interview given to media, there was only a hissing sound where that missing portion should be.

That was how former US President Nixon, who similarly tampered with Watergate tapes and lied about it, was hounded out of the presidency.

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THIS is one of the reasons why government statements, including statistics, are seldom trusted.

It is pointless for government to plead for unity and understanding while officials continue to lie to the people.

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THERE’S a proposal to grant clemency to prisoners or convicts who donate body organs.

Why not? If we can commute sentences and even pardon convicts on the shallow basis of their political connections, there is no reason why we cannot show some kindness to those who donate organs.

But we have to adopt measures to ensure that organ donation from prisoners is not transformed into a business.

We understand that some prisoners may agree to donate organs just to raise money for their families in need. But when faced with such a pathetic commercial transaction, our mind falters. We hesitate to form an opinion when poverty rears its disturbing head as the reason for some human action.

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OFTENTIMES we would dream of seeing prisoners in the national penitentiary having access to an excellent library, audiovisual equipment and classroom lessons to help them in their continuing education.

Time is one of the most valuable assets of human beings, including those in prison, that no one can take away from them. How this time is used is crucial to the person’s future when he walks out of prison.

In addition to teaching prisoners some useful craft, why not afford them a chance to get formal education while inside?

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IF a prisoner has, say, 10 years to serve and the right aptitude, he should be able to complete his high school and earn a bachelor’s degree within prison walls.

Basic education need not be expensive since all we need is space, some books and supplies, and a teacher. The books and the teacher do not run out and can be used for several terms.

Can you imagine finally reading all the books you had wanted to read but did not have the time or the money to buy them, learning to care for pets and plants, and other useful crafts aside from the usual vocational courses they teach in Muntinlupa?

For instance, a prison term would be an excellent chance for some individuals to learn how to assemble and use computers, troubleshoot, use the more popular software and the Internet for research, and even move on to programming and web-authoring.

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WE’RE talking here of ordinary convicts. What more if the detainees are innocent victims of our flawed justice system?

We have not seen statistics on the national penitentiary in Muntinlupa, but a recent report in the Washington Post said that a new study of the Federal Bureau of Investigation has shown that 33 of the first 100 cases reviewed by the bureau had been found actually innocent of the crime for which they were languishing in jail.

The report quoted William Sessions, FBI director under Presidents Reagan and Ford, as telling the newly formed National Committee to Prevent Wrongful Executions (of which he is a member):

“When I came to the FBI we had no capacity to use and review DNA evidence, but by December of 1988, we had a program that became the national model. Out of the first 100 cases where we tested prisoners, 33 people who had been identified by witnesses and by serology [blood type identification] as being the criminals involved were exonerated by DNA testing. There are 3,500 people on Death Row and many have been there for years, long before DNA evidence was available. As a prosecutor and a judge and an FBI director, I want to be sure we’ve got the right people. And now we can be.”

On the local scene, a study of the Free Legal Assistance Group from 1994 to 1998 showed that “in the (Supreme Court) cases of those already acquitted and those whose cases were remanded to retrial, the Death Row inmates spent between three to four years on Death Row for crimes they did not commit, before finally being set free.”

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ON the related issue of capital punishment, Roger Cardinal Mahony, archbishop of Los Angeles and chairman of the US Catholic Conference Domestic Policy Committee, noted in a powerful speech last May:

“The death penalty is further indication of a culture of violence that haunts our nation. Sadly, we are the most violent nation on earth not currently at war. It is reflected in our movies and music, our television and video games, in our homes, schools, and on our streets. More ominously, our society is tempted to solve some of our more significant social problems with violence.

“Consider this: Abortion is promoted to deal with difficult or unwanted pregnancies; euthanasia and assisted suicide are suggested as a remedy for the burdens of age and illness; capital punishment is marketed as the answer to deal with violent crime.

“A nation that destroys its young, abandons its elderly, and relies on vengeance is in serious moral trouble.”

He called for a “moral revolution” that would include turning “our prisons from warehouses of human failure and seedbeds of violence, to places of rehabilitation and recovery.” “In the end,” the cardinal said, “our society will be measured by how we treat ‘the least among us.’”

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REMINDS us of the disturbing case of several people picked up and beaten black and blue to own the ambush-murder in June 1996 of dreaded Marcos military operator Col. Rolando Abadilla. (Despite torture, one of them, Lenido Lumanog, steadfastly denied involvement in the crime.)

We remember that then DILG Secretary Robert Barbers gave the investigators a deadline to solve the murder as he was apparently in a hurry to show results before launching in earnest his bid for a Senate seat.

The investigators produced suspects all right and went on to prosecute them despite their protestations of innocence and torture. Quezon City RTC Judge Jaime N. Salazar was apparently also in a hurry to get it over with and meted five of them capital punishment.

As the judge was preparing his decision, the communist hit squad Alex Boncayao Brigade came forward to own the murder. The ABB said it executed Abadilla for his alleged crimes against the people, but this had no impact on the judge.

* * *

FR. Robert Reyes, called “running priest” for often taking to the jogging trail to call attention to his advocacies, also reported having been approached recently by an ABB leader who gave him a watch taken from Abadilla to prove the assassins’ claim of having executed him.

The good priest went to court to prevent a miscarriage of justice, but it seems Judge Salazar had no more time to rewrite his decision and just left the problem of reviewing the case to the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court would be doing itself a favor, if not advancing the cause of justice in general, if it ruled without further delay on urgent motions before it to send the case back to the lower court (under a different judge) in light of the ABB and other angles brought to its attention.

Our gut feel after a review of the case is that, at the very least, some of those now in Death Row for the Abadilla murder are innocent.

Who once said that it is far better to see 10 guilty persons go scotfree than see one innocent man punished?

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of June 25, 2000)

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