MANILA – Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte urged the country’s congress on Monday to reinstate capital punishment for drug and corruption crimes.
“I respectfully request Congress to reinstate the death penalty for heinous crimes related to drugs as well as plunder,” Duterte said in his annual State of the Union (SOTU) address in a joint session of the House of Representatives and the Senate that inaugurates the parliamentary session.
“The drugs will not be crushed unless we continue to eliminate corruption that allows the social monster to survive,” warned the Philippine leader, who has reached the halfway mark of his presidency with approval ratings of 85 percent.
Despite their belligerent rhetoric against corruption, several lawmakers considered allies of Duterte, present at the session, have faced corruption scandals or even been prosecuted for it.
Reinstatement of capital punishment, which was abolished in 2006, was one of the electoral promises of the president and a death penalty bill was passed in the House of Representatives but got stuck in the Senate, the traditionally more independent legislative chamber.
However, with the Senate elections in May, in which Duterte’s supporters swept the opposition, his legislative agenda is expected to move forward unhindered during the three remaining years of his term.
Among the new senators is former national police chief, Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa – who spearheaded the bloody war on drugs declared by Duterte after taking office – who has pledged to take the bill on capital punishment through.
In the three years since Duterte came to power in June 2016, the campaign has claimed the lives of 6,600 people, according to the police, although human rights groups put the number of deaths at 27,000, including extrajudicial executions at the hands of law enforcement officers and killings by neighborhood vigilantes protected by the campaign’s climate of impunity.
Earlier this month, the United Nations Human Rights Council adopted a resolution to investigate the campaign although the Philippine government has said that it will not allow UN representatives to enter the country for that purpose.
Although Duterte did not mention the UN in his address, he did refer to the preliminary examination opened more than a year ago by the International Criminal Court on whether the leader was responsible for alleged crimes committed during the campaign.
He said he had no problems being reported to the ICC as long as they gave him a “comfortable cell” and “conjugal visits, unlimited.”
Apart from the death penalty, Duterte’s legislative agenda includes other controversial proposals – pending debate in the Senate – such as lowering the age of criminal responsibility from 15 to 12 years and restoring mandatory military training.
During his more than one-and-a-half long speech, Duterte also referred to the conflict with China in the South China Sea, amid strong social discontent over his “passivity” in claiming the Philippines’ rights to territories in that region, recognized in 2016 in a ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague.
These include Scarborough Shoal and part of the Spratly archipelago, occupied by China, which maintains military and fishing control of waters and often expels Philippine fishermen from the area.
“The avoidance of conflict on our national waters compels us to perform a delicate balancing act. War leaves widows and orphans in its wake,” said the president.
He added that the Philippines will claim its rights “in due time.”
Coinciding with the president’s address, around 35,000 opponents of Duterte – according to the organizers – protested in the streets of Manila against his authoritarian modes of governance, human rights violations and his strategy in the maritime conflict with China, the Philippines biggest political and economic ally.
In Manila most banners alluded to this conflict with drawings of fish and boats, the protesters were dressed in blue, the effigy of Duterte that burned – a tradition in these demonstrations – represented the face of the president with scales, and paraded an “Ursula,” in reference to the villainous sea witch from the Disney film The Little Mermaid.
“Our version of Ursula is a depiction of Duterte’s rule in his three years. With his eight tentacles, each has a representation of policy or issue that has been detrimental to the lives of Filipinos. The 8 themes are: tyranny, killings, violations on the country’s sovereignty, trumped-up charges against political dissenters and critics, martial law, misogyny, attacks against human rights defenders, and impunity,” activist Cristina Palabay said.
Around 14,000 police officials were deployed throughout the city, which was on high alert for a terror threat, to prevent any incidents owing to the protests, although the day unfolded peacefully.