A law quickly making its way through the Philippine Congress would throw children as young as nine behind bars and make them criminally responsible for drug-related offenses.
Although it is receiving pushback from opponents of the president’s deadly anti-drug campaign, its passage it looking likely.
President Rodrigo Duterte has criticized the current law, which sets the minimum age for criminal liability at 15. The controversial leader says the law ties the hands of law enforcement against underage children working for drug gangs and other criminal enterprises.
Opponents say the push to lower the age would be a human rights disaster and targets the wrong people.
Romeo Dongeto, head of the Philippine advocacy group Child Rights Network, says advocates around the world were “shocked and disappointed” by the law, and told The New York Times “there will surely be grave repercussions for Filipino children.”
“Children may not only be arrested on the spot, but also risk being detained in crowded adult detention centers, even if the bill points to separate child-caring institutions to take them in,” he said.
The likelihood of the measure becoming the law of the land is high. On Monday, the justice panel in the House of Representatives approved amendments lowering the age. The measure still awaits approval by the full House and Senate but Duterte’s allies control both houses of Congress.
Salvador Panelo, a spokesman for Duterte, says the current law gives drug gangs incentive to use kids for criminal activities because “they know the children will be freed” or given a slap on the hand.
Panelo says drug gangs use children younger than 15 to do their dirty work for them. Most are used as drug runners or mules.
On Monday, the national police said from January 2017 to December 2018, more than 1,300 minors had been arrested in connection with illegal drugs. Panelo says the president wants to protect children by lowering the age.
Senator Francis Pangilinan, an opposition leader, said Tuesday that the majority of the children who committed crimes are from poor families trying to survive and said rather than throwing them behind bars, police should go after high-level criminals.
“Go after big crooks, and reform nine-year-olds,” he said.
Duterte’s anti-drug campaign has come under scrutiny. He has gone on national television to call out people he thought were drug dealers. The Philippine National Police acknowledged last month that its officers have killed about 5,000 people though journalists and human rights groups put that number much higher at around 20,000.
There have also been wide-ranging complaints in recent months that politicians in the Philippines were using the drug war as a cover to eliminate rivals and political enemies ahead of the nationwide elections in May.