MANILA (AFP) - Children as young as 12 years old could be incarcerated under a Bill backed by Philippine lawmakers on Wednesday (Jan 23) but which has been attacked by the United Nations and rights monitors.
The proposed law was among measures sought by President Rodrigo Duterte to further extend his deadly crackdown on drugs and crime, which has killed thousands since mid-2016.
Mr Duterte's allies had originally proposed lowering the "age of criminal liability" to nine, but after mounting outrage, the House of Representatives raised it to 12 and passed the Bill on the second reading.
The current age at which children are held criminally liable in the Philippines is 15.
If the Senate - where the Bill has attracted greater opposition - approves it, the Philippines would join countries like Afghanistan which punish 12-year-old children for criminal acts.
"We still think that 12 is a very young age for children to be held criminally responsible," Human Rights Watch campaigner Carlos Conde told AFP on Wednesday.
"The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has stated that the age of criminal responsibility should be at least 14 years, and should under no circumstances be reduced below that," he added.
The Bill passed by the House calls for "mandatory" confinement at a special "youth care facility" for children who commit serious crimes like murder, rape and arson - but also for car theft.
If the court determines they did not reform at the juvenile holding facility, they can be put in adult prison - which are notoriously overcrowded and dangerous - when they turn 18 years old.
Mr Duterte claimed on Tuesday that drugs gangs exploit the current law to use children to deliver methamphetamines.
"They are the ones who deliver the drug to customers, and they are the same ones who collect the payment," the President said.
"That's how children are hooked into it, children as young as six, eight, nine, 14."
However, the Philippine office of the UN Children's Fund said the proposed law "goes against the letter and spirit of child rights".
"Lowering the age of criminal responsibility will not deter adult offenders from abusing children to commit crimes," it said in a statement last Friday, adding it was "an act of violence against children".