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Sentenced to Death

http://www.hey-joe.net/mag02/m002.html

March 2003

by Ted Lerner

For as long as anyone can remember the Philippines has had the dubious reputation of being one of the least safe countries in South East Asia and nowadays even more so. With crime and lawlessness seemingly spiraling out of control—especially the kidnap for ransom of Filipino Chinese and foreign businessmen—at least ten foreign embassies in the Philippines have issued warnings to their countrymen to take extra precautions when moving in and around the country.

There is however, an alarming development directly affecting foreigners in the Philippines that has been taking place over the last few years and one in which not a single foreign embassy has even bothered to warn its citizens. It is a growing racket of quasi-legal extortion targeted specifically at foreigners. This racket is couched in laws aimed at curbing child abuse, specifically with the intent of vigorously prosecuting foreign pedophiles who have for years operated openly in the Philippines. While the laws may have had a noble intent, they have unwittingly resulted in a witch hunt hysteria that has sparked a growing industry of extortion where mere accusations take on the mantle of guilt and human rights are completely trampled in the process.

This appalling development is glaringly highlighted in a newly released book entitled, “Sentenced to Death,” written by long time Philippine residents Earl Wilkinson and Alan Atkins. The book chronicles the incredible story of Englishman Albert Wilson, who, back in 1996, was falsely accused of raping his 12 year old Filipino step daughter. In a legal process that can best be described as farcical, Wilson was arrested and subsequently convicted and sentenced to die by lethal injection. Three nightmarish years later, Wilson, through the help of Wilkinson and Atkins, was eventually acquitted by the Philippine Supreme Court and set free.
Ironically while Wilkinson may have helped set Wilson free, he probably had a hand in getting him involved in the ordeal in the first place. The Aussie Wilkinson is well known throughout the Philippines for his tireless efforts in trying to enact legislation aimed at catching and prosecuting foreign pedophiles. Wilkinson’s incessant letter writing and high profile campaign was partly responsible for the Philippines finally enacting in 1992, Republic Act 7610, which was designed specifically to catch and prosecute foreign pedophiles.

In an attempt to cast as wide a net as possible, Philippines lawmakers decreed that “any person who shall keep or have in his company a minor, 12 years or under or is ten years or more his junior in any public or private place, hotel, motel, beer joint, discotheque, cabaret, pension house, sauna or massage parlor, beach and or other tourist resort or similar places shall suffer the penalty of three years in prison and fine of not less than fifty thousand pesos(@ $1000.)” In 1996 the Philippines brought back the death penalty and raised the crime of child rape to a heinous one, punishable by death.

By anyone’s standard, Republic Act 7610 is blatantly vague and is clearly open for liberal interpretation. If a child sits down next to you while you’re sunbathing on the beach, you can be accused of child rape. What is even more unnerving however, is the nature of the law in the Philippines. In the Philippines, the government does not initiate the complaint, rather a private party must file a complaint for there to be a case. If the complainant decides to withdraw that complaint, then there is no case. In other words a case can be lodged against anyone on a mere complaint, then withdrawn later on.(read; pay me some money and I’ll drop the case.) This state of affairs, as Wilkinson and Atkins point out, can only be defined as “legal blackmail.”
In the case of child rape, even if the offense was alleged to have taken place many months before, the accused can’t get bail. With the notoriously snail like pace of the Philippine justice system, the accused could easily spend more than a year languishing in jail, all on a mere accusation.(read: I’ll pay up so I can get out of here.) And his chances of acquittal are slim at best. Wilkinson points out that as child abuse cases have generated a witch hunt hysteria in the last few years, judges compete with each other to see who can get the most scalps on to their belts. Guilty verdicts and stiff sentences mean faster promotions. And judges almost always take the side of the young victim, holding the preposterous victorian belief similar to the one judge when he said: “This court cannot believe that a Filipina of minor age would admit to the loss of her chastity and possibly ruin her future marriage opportunities unless it were true.”

Wilkinson also notes that while Republic Act 7610 was designed to catch foreign pedophiles, it has had the boomerang effect of sending to death row hundreds of poor Filipino men. And it’s not like the police are performing investigative miracles. In a country with no divorce, Wilkinson notes that the law has become a way for a wife to get rid of an abusive husband. In just over four years since the death penalty was enacted, the Philippine courts have handed down over 900 death sentences, with well over 60% of those coming from child rape cases.

In the case of Albert Wilson, he was lucky that Earl Wilkinson was nursing a pint of beer at a local pub in 1998 when someone approached him about the case of the convicted and incarcerated Englishman and told him he thought Wilson was innocent. After some exhaustive research, Wilkinson concurred that a miscarriage of justice had taken place and that an innocent man was about to die. He realized as well that perhaps his work fighting pedophiles had gone too far, and that perhaps some innocent people were being wrongly sentenced to death. He thus went from being a pedophile buster, to helping save a man wrongly convicted of child rape.
Wilkinson and writer Alan Atkins thus plunged in to Wilson’s case, trying to save a man they didn’t even know from a date with death. In the book they describe their task as “Mission near Impossible,” as rarely are convictions in child rape cases in the Philippines overturned by the high court.

The book itself is long on particulars, as Wilkinson and Atkins retrace each and every step of the case. The book contains detailed transcripts from the trial, as well as letters from Wilson as he sits on death row awaiting his appeal. At times the narrative can seem mind numbingly detailed, with points being made that only a lawyer would care about. But with a little persistence the point becomes disturbingly clear; exposing the Philippine judicial system at the provincial level, the incompetence and maneuverings of the lawyers and the awful conditions of Philippine prisons.

We learn how Albert Wilson was arrested on a mere complaint without any investigation, handcuffed and hauled off to jail with his wife, who wasn’t even charged. We discover the role of the natural father, who was broke and had drinking buddies inside the local police department and encouraged his young daughter to bring the charge. Before he was convicted Wilson was approached several times in jail by the victims lawyers asking that he fork over $25,000 so that the case could be dropped.

Through the court transcripts we see clearly how the alleged victim, the daughter of Wilson’s Filipina wife, is actively encouraged by her natural father and time and again changes her story while under oath and how the provincial judge blatantly ignores the obvious inconsistencies. The judge then completely ignores two doctors, one a witness for the prosecution and a medical examiner from the National Bureau of Investigation, whom debunk the rape charge by stating emphatically that it never occurred. The judge also ignores the testimony of the girl’s immediate family, who state that the rape never happened.

When Wilson was convicted of child rape and sentenced to die by lethal injection, he had already languished in jail for two years. Clearly if it wasn’t for Wilkinson and Atkins taking up the appeal, Wilson would probably be dead today. One of the most disturbing parts of the book is the conduct of the defense lawyers, whose shoddy preparation shows how little they care even when a man’s life is at stake. The descriptions of life inside death row are equally disturbing, as they reveal appalling and sub human conditions.

“Sentenced to Death” deals only with the case of Albert Wilson, but Wilkinson recently pointed out that false accusations for rape and child abuse against foreigners are becoming more and more frequent in the Philippines. Often times, he claims, the accused just pay off the complainant so the charge can be dropped and they can reclaim their lives. Others refuse to pay and have received outrageously stiff sentences.

With its emphasis on legal detail, “Sentenced to Death” seems to be more suited to those in the law profession. But the message the book imparts is frightening for any foreigner who lives, works and/or travels in and around the Philippines. Co author Atkins put it best when, immediately after a horrifying visit to Wilson on death row he wrote, “How could this happen? Why was it allowed to happen? Could it happen to others? More important could it happen to me? The answer to the final question was a definite ‘yes.’ In the Philippines today, it can happen to just about anyone.”
(“Sentenced to Death is published by Book of Dreams, Germany. For more info please visit www.book-of-dreams.com)

Ted Lerner is the author of the book, “Hey, Joe—a slice of the city, an American in Manila,” as well as an upcoming book of Asian travel stories, “The Traveler and the Gate Checkers.” He can be reached via email at ted@hey-joe.net.