Alarmed by the rising incidence of summary executions in Davao City, the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) is stepping in to investigate the problem and has scheduled public hearings in March on the so-called "Davao Death Squad."
CHR Chair Leila De Lima said she has been assured by Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte of the city government's cooperation.
"It's getting alarming. What's happening? In January, our local office validated nine to 11 cases. Local media have reported much higher [figures]. I think there is really a need to do something about it. We need to conduct a public inquiry," De Lima told reporters on Saturday in Cebu City.
Davao City is famous for its peace and order, but it is also notorious for the summary executions of criminals like drug pushers and petty thieves. In some cases, the victims are minors.
The "Davao Death Squad" is a shadowy vigilante group whose mission is supposedly to make Davao City crime-free. Since 1998, over 500 summary executions have been attributed to the group. They have been able to evade law enforcers.
"How can something very systematic and very regular be not the handiwork of someone or a group? We need to do it (public hearings). We are lending the institutional position of the CHR to conduct a comprehensive forum to seriously look into this phenomenon in Davao," De Lima added.
They have become bolder, too. The vigilantes used to hide their faces by wearing hoods. But recently, there were cases when the victims were stabbed in broad daylight and the vigilantes casually walked away from the crime scenes.
The public hearings will be held on March 30 and 31. De Lima said the CHR will issue a formal resolution on the public hearings next week.
The killings have received international attention. De Lima said she has been getting e-mails from representatives of international organizations who have read about the killings in the Internet.
"It may be tough to really find out who or what group is behind it. At the very least, we want to know what are the factors that are contributing to that kind of incidence and culture of impunity. Hopefully, there will be some kind of a deterrent effect. They will lie low," De Lima said.
"We want to make people realize that it [killing] is wrong, legally and morally. Even assuming that these are criminal elements, it's wrong. It's completely wrong, morally and legally. Many of them are even minors," she added.
It will be the CHR's first big-scale investigation of the problem.
"During the en banc yesterday (February 12), all the commissioners agreed that it has to be the CHR main [that should investigate]. We will try to make a difference," De Lima said.
Duterte vows to cooperate
As early as October 2008, the CHR sent Duterte a letter requesting for a dialogue regarding the killings. De Lima and Duterte finally met last January in a human rights conference in Davao City.
"I was assured by the mayor that he will cooperate. He will be there. He said he will participate as long as it's open and transparent," De Lima said.
Asked what Duterte had to say about the killings, she said the mayor told her to "go deeper into the history of Davao City" because "there was a time when there was a proliferation of undocumented firearms."
De Lima said the commission will also summon other city government officials, Philippine National Police (PNP) chief Jesus Versoza and the local police, and representatives of the Department of Interior and Local Government, the office of the Ombudsman, National Police Commission, the local media, church groups, NGOs, and the academe.
"We will, in fact, also ask PNP chief Jesus Versoza to appear as a resource person. If only the local police show up, they may have a tendency to be evasive. They will just say, we have to clear this with our superiors," she said. "If their superiors are there, we can directly ask questions."
'Callous' over killings
De Lima said there are people in Davao City who support the CHR's initiative because of concerns about the impact of summary executions on the residents.
In the same conference, De Lima, in her speech, criticized the "Davao Death Squad." She said several people from the audience approached her during the break to express "great alarm" over the killings.
"They (residents) are already calloused. It's [killing] like the most ordinary thing that can happen. They are who we want to save, [those with] the kind of mentality that it [killing] is acceptable," De Lima said.