Victims of Duterte drug war tame anger, overcome fear as they bring fight to ICC

Inday Espina-Varona, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Aug 28 2018 10:48 PM | Updated as of Aug 28 2018 11:02 PM

Victims of Duterte drug war tame anger, overcome fear as they bring fight to ICC 1
Relatives of victims killed in the government's drug war gather at the United Church of Christ of the Philippines (UCCP) to support each other, Tuesday. Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News

Normita Lopez vowed on the grave of her slain son, Djastin, that she would spend the entire day of all her remaining birthdays with him.

Djastin, an epileptic youth shot dead by police on May 18, 2017, would always give his mother a chocolate muffin stuffed with a regular candle.

She broke her promise on Monday, August 27.

“I promised him a whole day but I could only give two hours,” Normita told ABS-CBN News.

The rest of the day was spent with five other relatives of President Rodrigo Duterte’s drug war victims and volunteers of Rise Up for Life and Rights, the network of church and human rights organizations and survivors.

Lopez, Dennise David, Maria Lozano, Mariel Sabangan, and Purisima Dacumos and Rise Up filed a suit on Tuesday, August 28, at the International Criminal Court (ICC), charging Duterte for crimes against humanity.

They sent a digital complaint, a process allowed by the international court.

“This is historic because this is the first time victims themselves are filing a case against President Duterte,” said Neri Colmenares of the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers (NUPL), counsel for the complainants.

All complainants are ready to testify before the ICC, he said.

Grief to courage

Dacumos became silent, withdrawn and hopeless for a few months after husband, Danilo, was shot dead on August 3, 2017. 

“I know who killed my husband but I didn’t know what to do, where to go,” she told ABS-CBN News.

Dacumos cannot count the hours she has spent silently telling Danilo about buckling from juggling the task of being a single parent and a crusader for justice.

But she slowly regained strength in the company of Rise Up volunteers who have experienced the same emotional roller coaster.

Many friends and even relatives have tried to dissuade David, father of John Jezreel, killed on January 20, 2017, from pursuing justice.

He has also read jeers from trolls on social media, who believe drug addicts deserve their fate and tell him to move on.

“They don’t even know him. They know nothing about him, but they approve of his murder because they believe Duterte,” said David.

“My answer to them is, until we win justice, I will not stop fighting,” David said. “Maybe they don’t care, but we feel the pain.”

Widespread, brazen, systematic

Complainants accused Duterte of personally ordering and presiding over “widespread and systematic attacks” in the form of murders against thousands of civilians.

The complaint cited the latest official count of 4,410 killings linked to police operations and various figures from rights groups, with some claiming 23,000 killings since Duterte took power in 2016.

Complainants cited Duterte for many inhumane acts, including massive illegal searches and arrests.

The families find Duterte personally liable for the extra-judicial killings, said Colmenares.

“There is plenty of evidence, including numerous public statements by Duterte, during his presidential campaign and upon assuming office, of him directly ordering these killings,” the lawyer said.

Malacañang belittled the fresh communication filed against Duterte.

Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque said the communication “does not mean anything” since anyone can file one.

“Even the Pope has a communication filed against him. So that doesn’t mean anything,” Roque said in a Palace press briefing.

Roque added the communication also violates the principle of complementarity, which means that the international court should only act on a case if the courts in a particular member country are not functioning.

Colmenares said the complainants are confident that the cases of their slain kin can prove the killings are systematic.

“There’s practically one design,” the lawyer said. “The police enter hopes or accost suspects, they claim buy-bust operations, they claim everyone has a gun and that everyone fought back.”

Witnesses, he stressed, have come out to directly refute those claims.

Government insists vigilantes are behind the extra-judicial killings (EJKs) – including those of people found dumped, their bodies bound in heavy tape, with makeshift signs accusing the dead of being pushers and warning people not to follow their example.

EJKs are characterized by their brazen nature, the complainants said.

“The killings were done, often in public places, in broad daylight, in front of many witnesses,” said Colmenares. “These show that the perpetrators were never afraid at all of being accosted by government authorities.”

“Our assertion is that these are state-sponsored killings. There is direct evidence that police are the killers, even in these so-called cases where the assailants are not identified,” he said.

Duterte’s regular public vilification of victims also make a case for a systematic program, Colmenares added.

“Over and over, he calls suspected drug addicts and pushers as inhuman,” the lawyer said. “Again and again, he says they deserve death.”

Run around

Documentation by Rise Up cites many cases where police shunted aside families of the more than 4,000 slain in their operations.

Those who try to probe the circumstances of their kins’ deaths are also threatened or offered bribes to move on.

Katherine Bautista, John Jezreel’s stepmother, said he was stopped at a police checkpoint and then left for dead.

Manila police returned his cannibalized motorcycle three days into his wake, she told ABS-CBN News in a previous interview.

Cops refused to release spot reports or any related document, Bautista said.

The family was also forced to abandon their home because masked men were prowling the community. 

Police officials, she added, also asked how much they wanted to settle the case. 

“They just kept telling us to drop the case. I told them, even if they offered millions, it would not give back the life of an innocent man,” Bautista said.

John Jezreel had no record of any criminal involvement, she stressed.

It took repeated appeals for the police forensics office to release the autopsy in May, three months after the killing.

The stalling does not only involve the Philippine National Police (PNP), Bautista said.

CCTV cameras of the Mother and Child hospital caught the police bringing in John Justin’s body.

“They were even riding his motorcycle,” Bautista said.

But hospital authorities would not release the CCTV without the permission of Manila Mayor Joseph Estrada. It took 60 letters before the Office of the Mayor gave permission, she said.

Channeling rage

Lopez still talks nightly with her son, hoping for a small whisper from beyond the grave.

When not conversing with Djastin, she prays to God, “to hold me, guide me, because there is still so much anger in my heart and soul.”

“It is my desire to win justice for my son that helps me tame the anger. If all I have is anger, nothing will happen,” she told ABS-CBN News.

“Anger leaves no room for anything but vengeance, the urge to strike back,” said Lopez.

“You want them to suffer your son’s fate. Hindi dapat yun. Kailangan managot sila sa mabuting paraan, sa patas na paraan.” (It’s not right. We must seek justice through the right path, a just path.)

But Duterte has closed paths to justice in the country, say the complainants.

“Justice while Duterte around is almost impossible in this country,” Dacumos said. “He has repeatedly said, ‘I am President and what I want I get. My orders should be followed by the police’. But there is a chance that elsewhere, we can get justice.”

Lopez said there was a time she wanted to strike back at any cop.

Not anymore.

“Why should I focus my anger on them? They are not the most responsible parties here,” said Lopez.

“The police kill because they have orders from the President.”