March 7, 2017 / 11:50 AM / 5 months ago

Philippines edges closer to death penalty return for serious drug offences

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Former Philippine First Lady and incumbent congresswoman Imelda Marcos attends the third and final reading of the death penalty bill inside the House of the Representatives in Quezon city, metro Manila, Philippines March 7, 2017.Romeo Ranoco

MANILA (Reuters) - Philippine lower house lawmakers overwhelmingly approved the re-imposition of capital punishment for serious drug offences on Tuesday, clearing another hurdle in President Rodrigo Duterte's drive to use death as a deterrent against crime.

Voting 216 to 54 with one abstention, lawmakers passed the third and final reading the bill to bring back the death penalty, but in a watered-down draft that excludes crimes like rape, kidnap-for-ransom and plunder.

The bill, which permits death by hanging, firing squad and lethal injection, must now go to the Senate.

A return of the death penalty, over a decade after it was abolished under pressure from the church, has been a top priority for Duterte, who was swept to power on promises of a merciless war on drugs and crime.

More than 8,000 people have been killed since Duterte took office eight months ago, mostly drug users killed by mysterious gunmen in incidents authorities attribute to vigilantes, gang members silencing informants, or unrelated murders.

Re-imposing capital punishment was Duterte's first piece of draft legislation and was submitted on his inauguration on June 30. It argued the justice system had been "emasculated" and tough measures were needed.

Duterte has questioned why lawmakers excluded serious crimes other than drugs, saying it runs counter to his law and order agenda. He has spoken repeatedly of his desire to hang criminals, as many as 20 per day.

Robert Ace Barbers, who heads the house committee on dangerous drugs, said death for those who manufacture and possess large volumes of narcotics was appropriate because of the "irreparable damage" drugs had caused to society.

"The entire future of our country has been compromised," he told reporters.

Activists holds placards during a protest rally against the passing of the death penalty bill, at the gate of House of the Representatives in Quezon city, metro Manila, Philippines March 7, 2017.Romeo Ranoco

Human rights groups and Catholic bishops oppose the bill and have protested outside Congress and warned politicians supporting it to expect a backlash from their constituents.

Opponents spoke out strongly in the house, describing the measure as barbaric, regressive and no deterrent against crime.

Representative Jose Christopher Belonte said lawmakers voting in favour would have "blood on our hands".

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Congressman and former Manila mayor Joselito Atienza said the bill would put "a curse on our predominantly Catholic nation".

The passage through the Senate is not guaranteed to be smooth. Some Duterte loyalists in the chamber oppose it.

Deliberations by the 24-seat upper house on its own version of the bill were suspended last month after the justice department reminded senators the Philippines is a signatory to a United Nations treaty that prohibits executions.

The death penalty has been imposed and repealed on and off in the Philippines since after World War Two.

Dozens of convicts were executed by electric chair from 1950 to 1986. The death penalty was abolished a year later and restored in 1993 under President Fidel Ramos, before being scrapped again in 2006.

The International Commission on Jurists condemned the house and urged the Senate to block a bill that "puts the Philippines in direct conflict with its international obligations".

Editing by Martin Petty

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