ASEAN Philippines’ war on drugs: detentions, legal cases surge

FOCUS: The Philippine government’s war on drugs, implemented starting nearly a year ago upon the assumption into power of President Rodrigo Duterte, has not only resulted in the deaths of thousands of defiant suspected drug personalities, but also left jails swelling with more inmates and more legal cases piling up, authorities recently said.

At a recent forum about the condition of Philippine jails and prisons, Paulino Moreno Jr. of the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology said more than 142,000 individuals, as of last month, are detained across the country as almost all of them undergo trial for the various cases they are facing. Around 64% of these detainees are charged with violating the illegal drugs law.

The country’s 466 jails have an ideal combined capacity of only around 20,400 individuals, and are only manned by no more than 12,000 personnel.

“Our statistics show that that’s really the trend — that most of the cases coming in are because of the law enforcement focus on illegal drugs (under the current) administration,” Mr Moreno said as he acknowledged the “war on drugs” as “the major contributor to the congestion.”

A previous population data report of Mr Moreno’s agency covering until the end of January this year placed the number of detainees at nearly 132,000.

According to the government, more than 57,500 antidrug operations were conducted by authorities from July 1 last year up to May 9 this year, resulting in the arrests of 72,812 individuals and the deaths of 2,949 others who reportedly fought it out with law enforcers.

A separate report of the Philippine National Police noted that of the nearly 9,500 homicide incidents from July 1 last year up to March 31 this year, about one-fifth have been determined to be related to illegal drugs, while more than half are still under investigation. Around 20% of the cases, meanwhile, were found to be not related to illegal drugs.

Mr Duterte, who was sworn into office on June 30 last year, had vowed to be harsh against illegal drugs, criminality and corruption, believing that peace and order will spur economic development across the country. He cites his two-decade leadership in Davao City on Mindanao island that used such a model as his concrete example.

Mr Duterte repeatedly said his administration’s war on drugs will not stop until the last drug pusher is removed from the streets and last drug lord is killed. He said law enforcers are mandated to neutralize suspects who fight back and endanger the lives of the former.

The campaign had facilitated also the surrender of nearly 1.27 million drug personalities, of whom, almost 90,000 are peddlers. Authorities estimate there are 4 million Filipinos who are hooked to illegal drugs as users and peddlers.

Percida Acosta, chief of the Public Attorney’s Office which provides free legal service to indigent individuals facing charges, disclosed that before Mr Duterte came into power on June 30 last year, her office was handling some 82,000 drug-related cases. But six months later, it “got bloated” to around 303,000 cases.

These drug-related cases, Ms Acosta said, account for more than 50% of all the cases her office is handling. Private law firms, meanwhile, handle much fewer drug-related cases, although these involve bigger personalities like drug lords and traffickers, she said.

“Not all (accused in these drug-related cases) were brought to jail because there is no more place for them there. Some were asked to return to their homes, or were referred to religious groups, non-government organizations and their communities for self-rehabilitation,” Ms Acosta said.

With only 1,655 public lawyers across the country who also handle other cases like murder and rape, Ms Acosta said measures are being taken to reduce the case load of her office, including an appeal to the court to allow “small-time” violators of the illegal drugs law to plea bargain for the early disposition of their cases. “These smalltime drug users are just victims of drug traffickers,” Ms Acosta said.

Meanwhile, Martin Perfecto, deputy director for reformation at the Bureau of Corrections, said the problem of congestion has existed for a long time, disclosing that the current population of all seven prison facilities across the country stands at over 41,000. The ideal capacity is only for a little over 19,200.

Mr Perfecto said about 30% of the current population consists of convicted drug offenders.

It is not clear, however, if the current campaign against illegal drugs made the congestion problem in prisons worse, especially since the country’s Dangerous Drugs Board noted that the conviction rate for illegal drugs cases is very low.

Mr Perfecto hopes the current administration will start implementing the modernization program of the Bureau of Corrections, which is covered by a law passed in 2013, to be able to address the issues of congestion and its personnel, among others.

Just like the Bureau of Corrections, Mr Moreno said the Bureau of Jail Management also needs more facilities to reduce its congestion rate and eventually comply with international standards.

Rodolfo Diamante of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines lamented that despite the existence of the problem of jail congestion for a long time and the constant advocacy of several sectors to address it, it has remained a low priority for various governments.

“The reform of the jail and prison system is not really given attention to. There is no comprehensive reform program. The problem about jail conditions is not about lack of funds. It’s the lack of priority, and the lack of implementation of the law,” said Mr Diamante.

Jacqueline Ann de Guia of the Commission on Human Rights said the Philippines has “one of the most complex penitentiary systems in the world, considering the number of institutions that take care of our penitentiary system — the Philippine National Police, the BJMP, local government units, the Bureau of Corrections.”

“That explains the differences in policies, approaches, budgetary allocations,” Ms de Guia said.

Mr Diamante said a proposal to integrate all jails and prison systems under one government unit is supported by his organization, as well as “alternatives to imprisonment,” which also include the granting of executive clemency to longtime and aging prisoners.

“This congestion problem is really big, and is not just of the BJMP and the agencies involved in custodial function. This is a societal problem, and it needs a whole-of-government approach, and including the private sector also, of course,” Mr Moreno said.

In light of the worsening congestion in jails amid the current administration’s war on drugs, Ms de Guia reiterated to the Commission on Human Rights the fact that the government should have foreseen “many will be arrested.”

“So, we should first fix the conditions of our jails. Let’s allot budget for the construction of new facilities, like what the BJMP has said, so we won’t have problems with congestion. We hope there is also an approach towards rehabilitation,” Ms de Guia said.

At a separate forum, Benjamin Reyes of the Dangerous Drugs Board stressed the campaign against illegal drugs is not limited only to law enforcement, but also includes prevention and rehabilitation.

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