The Opinion Pages | CONTRIBUTING OP-ED WRITER
The New York Times
The Injustice System
April 26, 2017
MANILA — In one jail here, 91 men share a cell so small they take turns sitting down. It’s dizzyingly hot, and there are only two buckets for personal hygiene. And not one of the detainees has been convicted of a crime.
The 93 men packed into the cell next door are also not guilty — at least not yet. Nobody in this city jail has been tried. Each awaits his time in court. One inmate tells me his case has already stretched nearly five years. Many others have been here several months, since President Rodrigo Duterte began his war on drugs a little less than a year ago. The jails continue to overflow. “For every one person processed out,” an inmate told me, “five new ones arrive.”
All Filipinos know that there’s little justice to be had from our criminal justice system. It is toothless and glacial. And its longtime failure is at the root of broad acceptance of Mr. Duterte’s draconian drug war, which has led to more than 4,000 confirmed deaths, with nearly 3,800 more awaiting investigation. Like most institutions in this country, the systems of law and order are thoroughly dysfunctional. The abuses can only ever be rectified by addressing each in turn. But what if the mechanisms to do that are so broken they’re nearly useless?
According to Senate President Pro Tempore Ralph Recto, the judiciary has a backlog of 600,000 cases, with at least a fifth of all trial courts lacking judges. Each year, overworked prosecutors individually handle some 500 cases, while every public defender is responsible for roughly 5,000 clients. The police are also understaffed by 50,000, and officers are assessed not by the number of successful convictions but on the number of suspects charged by prosecutors, whose cozy relationships with cops make them hesitant to reject cases as lacking merit.
Read: Opinion Editorial
Let the World Condemn Duterte APRIL 25, 2017
Many accused, after being pressed for bribes and languishing in jail for years, end up simply released after the police do not attend trials to testify, or the prosecution is absent or the evidence proves flimsy. Under Mr. Duterte’s predecessor, roughly one in four cases led to conviction — a pittance, but an improvement from the administration before that. Our criminal justice system has never been able to properly exonerate the innocent and punish the guilty.
No wonder so many voters put their faith in Mr. Duterte’s vow to root out crime in his first six months as president. That promise, however, proved fanciful, and his urgency to deliver led him to him cast human rights and due process as hindrances rather than as safeguards against an exploitative system. Punitive action, now operating extrajudicially, has become subjective and reliant not on the judgment of institutions, with all their checks and balances.
Citizens these days are targeted from drug watchlists compiled by local community officials, whom the president now denounces as largely corrupt and in need of replacement. Those lists, because they are confidential and unverified, have cultivated a sense of impunity that has led to police abuses, vigilante operations and thousands of killings. They’ve also left so many Filipinos vulnerable to less lethal, but more pervasive, victimization.
In slums that I visited across Metro Manila, wives, mothers, sisters and grandparents were eager to tell stories of their relatives, mostly men, who were arrested without warrants or detained without evidence. One woman told me that ever since police operations began in her community, her small children sleep fitfully, easily startled by noises in the street, and the sight of a police car sends them running in fear.
Residents recounted how police will conduct a “sona,” slang for mass interrogation in communities that often leads to harassment by the authorities. I was told in one slum by the Pasig River that more than 80 men were called out of their homes, lined up and arrested last September. One woman said that a few of those detained ended up dead. Another woman, whose brother was similarly killed, spoke on behalf of her sheepish husband standing behind her. A model citizen in the community, he serves as a volunteer firefighter, heads the local group that organizes an annual religious procession and had just before his arrest passed a police clearance that was required for new employment. To raise his $500 bail, his family sold their shanty, gave up their small business and moved in with his mother.
Such stories are now commonplace. The poor, who’ve always known justice least, now bear injustice most. While Mr. Duterte remains overwhelmingly popular, a recent poll showed that trust in him has risen among the upper classes but has dropped by 11 percentage points among the poorest, resulting in a seven-point drop overall.
In a slum in the north of Manila, residents told me about a dozen men from the same street who were arrested this year after a police raid failed to snag a targeted drug suspect. Women showed me documents issued by the courts or Public Attorney’s Office, bearing labyrinthine legal phrases in English, a language they barely speak. To these citizens, the rotten justice system is the only place to which they can turn.
Human rights lawyers say such systemic injustice can be addressed only by reforming the judiciary, the penal system and the police together. But that network must first be challenged, to prove that its dysfunction results in grave consequences, and the only ones who can legally file cases are the abused parties, most of whom are too poor and too scared to do so.
That is steadily changing. Whistleblowers from among police and vigilantes are speaking out, while lawyers’ groups have been working on cases for victims of abuse or families of those killed. This year, a group of claimants won an injunction from the Supreme Court, which issued a restraining order against police officers alleged to have shot four men execution style. Yet the trial is a long way off, and these plaintiffs, and all others like them, receive no other protection from the government. They live in fear.
If not for concerned lawyers who advocate for them, the journalists who tell their stories and religious groups who offer sanctuary, these citizens, who mostly do not know their rights, would be facing the system entirely on their own. There’s an inspiring irony that the strength and courage most needed to challenge it all comes from the country’s most vulnerable.
These cases, often dismissed by Duterte supporters as isolated incidents or necessary growing pains, are actually vital to the reform this administration seeks. Without them, a public advocate told me, we can neither prove that abuse indeed stems from the system nor pinpoint what needs to be fixed. And given the current government’s efforts to reinstate capital punishment and lower the age of criminal liability to 9 years old, fixing the Philippine justice system is more than ever a matter of life and death.
Despite his violent rhetoric and his coddling of police, the blame is not all Mr. Duterte’s. No one person is culpable, just as no one person can fix it. What is supposed to be a precision instrument for ensuring law and order has become a weapon so blunt that most people can’t trust it. The current embrace of violence, and all the justifications people make for it, are predicated on this. The system is so broken that many Filipinos think it’s just better to purge the dregs of society. It’s a perverse hope — one that if we’re honest we can all understand, but one that if we’re responsible, we must ultimately reject.
Miguel Syjuco (@MiguelSyjuco), a contributing opinion writer, is the author of the novel “Ilustrado” and a professor at N.Y.U. Abu Dhabi.
Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook and Twitter, and sign up for the Opinion Today newsletter.
A version of this op-ed appears in print on April 27, 2017, on Page A10 of the National edition with the headline: The injustice system in the Philippines. Today’s Paper|Subscribe