At least 18 frat-related deaths despite a 22-year-old anti-hazing law

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, September 27) — "How long does the pain last?"

Aurelio Servando, father of a hazing victim in 2014, was stunned when Carminia Castillo popped the question. When Servando visited the wake of Castillo's son, Atio, he was reminded of his own child, whom he had to bury more than three years ago.

"I'm sorry it doesn't. It doesn't end," Servando told Castillo.

Servando and Castillo's son were around the same age. They studied in two of the top universities in the Philippines - but Servando says the boys were similar in other ways.

"He (Castillo) obviously, is also very kind, and very loving, and he also loves dogs," Servando said. "He was also chubby, by the way."

But there was one thing Servando wished Atio didn't share with his late son Guillo: To die in the hands of his supposed brothers.

Guillo Servando was just 18 and a sophomore at De La Salle College of St. Benilde when he died in 2014, after the initiation rites of the Tau Gamma Phi fraternity.

Twenty-two year old University of Santo Tomas (UST) law freshman Horacio "Atio" Castillo III, meanwhile, died while attending the "welcome party" of  Aegis Juris Fraternity, an organization based in the UST College of Civil Law.

While authorities are chasing suspects in Atio's death, lawmakers are conducting investigations to amend the 22-year-old law which was supposed to protect Atio, Guillo, and at least 17 others who died in the "spirit" of brotherhood - Republic Act 8049, an act which only regulates hazing.

18 deaths, 393 suspects, 1 conviction

The death of Ateneo de Manila student Leonardo Lenny Villa in 1991 after the initiation rites of Aquila Legis Juris Fraternity prompted the creation of the existing Anti-Hazing Law.

The case, which was only closed in 2012, led to the conviction of five accused - a 21-year battle for Villa's family.

However, the first - and only conviction so far - under R.A. 8049 is the case of University of the Philippines Los Banos student Marlon Villanueva in 2006 in the hands of the Alpha Phi Omega fraternity. The case, which sentenced the two suspects to reclusion perpetua, was decided in 2015.

The case of Servando may also be up for a long wait as it is still on appeal after the Makati Regional Trial Court Branch 53 dismissed it in 2016 due to technicalities.

"The judge believes that one of the essential elements of hazing cases was the mention in the information portion of the case. He said in his decision that the phrase, 'as a prerequisite for admission to fraternities' should have been included," Servando explained. "The phrase that was used by the Department of Justice when they filed the case was, 'in the final initiation of,'" he added.

Legal loopholes

Senator Juan Miguel Zubiri, along with other critics, have pointed out legal loopholes in the current anti-hazing law.

One of this is the failure of the law to ban hazing outright.

However, the anti-hazing law's principal author, former senator Joey Lina, said the law was meant to "address a gap in our legal system."

"What is that gap? There is no crime called hazing, whether under the Revised Penal Code (RPC), or under the special laws," Lina said, adding the suspects in the Lenny Villa case was punished with reckless imprudence resulting to homicide, with a penalty of imprisonment of 4 months up to 4 years and 2 days.

Another example, Lina said, was the need to prove intent.

Prior to the passage of the anti-hazing law, the former senator said the cases which can be filed against those involved in hazing are murder, homicide, serious physical injuries, less serious physical injuries, or slight physical injuries, all of which required proving intent.

"This present law has an underlying shift in philosophy. We will not charge anymore the persons accused in hazing under the RPC. It will be under a special law, and this (anti-hazing law) is the special law. The objective is for the prosecution and the police not to prove anymore the intent to kill," Lina said.

For Lina, it is not about the law but the system itself.

"It's a question of the entire criminal justice system. A law is only as good as it is enforced or implemented," Lina said.

Filling the gaps

The separate probes in the Senate and the House of Representatives on Atio's case were meant to strengthen the anti-hazing law.

Lina said he welcomes the possible amendments, but warned against scrapping the entire law.

"There are two serving sentences under the existing anti-hazing law. there are 300 suspects at large according to the Philippine National Police. If the law is revoked or annulled, what will be the case? They will go scot free. There are pending cases now in court which will be affected by a move to scrap the law altogether," Lina said.

Senator Ping Lacson, head of the committee that probed on Castillo's case, assured they will not repeal the law.

Meanwhile, for the grieving Servando, the country still has "a lot of work to do" regarding the criminal justice system.

"I liken it to a bamboo pole that can be turned left or right, front and back. Our justice in the Philippines is very subjective. If you have a good lawyer who could interpret the law in a way that will favor you, it can be done. The same with judges, unfortunately," he lamented.