Sabio communication on Duterte's 'crimes against humanity' can’t be withdrawn, ICC prosecutor says

Mike Navallo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Jan 15 2020 04:24 AM

Trillanes dismisses Sabio withdrawal

MANILA—Hours after lawyer Jude Sabio announced he was withdrawing the communication against the Philippine drug war that he filed with the International Criminal Court (ICC), the ICC Office of the Prosecutor (OTP) said late Tuesday any communication filed with their office “cannot be withdrawn.”

Responding to an email inquiry, the ICC Prosecutor News Desk explained it was not possible to withdraw any communication filed with them because they have an obligation to register whatever they receive, under their own rules.

“The Office cannot effectively destroy or return information once it is [in] its possession or control. However, the Office would register any supplemental information the sender may now want to provide (including in terms of how to treat such information),” it explained.

Sabio filed a communication with the ICC in April 2017, alleging that President Rodrigo Duterte and other Philippine government officials committed crimes against humanity in instituting extrajudicial killings first in Davao City through the Davao Death Squad, which they allegedly continued on a national scale in the anti-drug war campaign after he took office in June 2016.

But less than 3 years later, Sabio appeared in a video clip announcing he was withdrawing the communication, saying he doesn’t want the communication used for political purposes.


Asked about Sabio’s statement, the ICC OTP said the purported withdrawal would have “no impact on the ongoing preliminary examination.”

It cited Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda’s Feb. 8, 2018 statement announcing the opening of the preliminary examination after a “careful, independent and impartial review of a number of communications and reports documenting alleged crimes."

“During the preliminary examination, the relevant assessment conducted by the Office is based on information available from wide range of a reliable sources. The Office is notably not limited by the information or allegations contained in individual communications received under article 15 of the Rome Statute,” the ICC OTP said.


The ICC OTP’s statement echoes views earlier provided by international law experts.

Lawyer Ray Paolo Santiago, co-chair of the Philippine Coalition for the International Criminal Court, said the withdrawal would have no effect on the preliminary examination since what Sabio filed was not a complaint.

“The communication he filed is based on facts that can be verified independently. Since the incidents actually happened, his ‘withdrawal’ will not present an alternative fact,” he said.

New York-based International Center for Transitional Justice’s Ruben Carranza shared the same view.

“The OTP has already opened its preliminary examination, and at the stage it is presumably in, that PE would have already gone beyond the initial communications. In the OTP annual report, you can see references by them to different sources of information – more than the communications,” he explained.

For international law professor Romel Bagares, Sabio's withdrawal will only serve to buoy up confidence of the President's defenders but has “no evidentiary weight” because it refers to “largely irrelevant matters.”

Sabio’s communication relies heavily on testimonies of Davao Death Squad whistleblower Edgar Matobato and Arturo Lascañas, not on the current drug war.

The National Union of Peoples' Lawyers, who assisted kin of drug war victims in filing a communication, said that once the ICC had acquired jurisdiction, it could not be frustrated by a unilateral withdrawal if there were other facts and evidence, such as its own filing.


Sabio’s announcement came months after his public falling-out with former Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV over a billing dispute, claiming an unpaid billing of P700,000 for handling the cases of Matobato.

He also claimed in September last year that Trillanes tried to recruit him to lawyer for Peter Joemel “Bikoy” Advincula, the hooded figure in the “Ang Totoong Narcolist” videos.

Advincula initially linked the President and his family to the illegal drug trade but later accused close to 40 opposition figures including Trillanes and Vice President Leni Robredo of trying to smear the President’s name in the sedition complaint pending before the Department of Justice (DOJ).

He added that it was Trillanes who asked him to file the ICC communication.

The former senator has denied he had a professional relationship with Sabio, describing previous funds he gave him ranging from P50,000 to P100,000 a month as “aid.”

He also denied involvement in the alleged sedition plot, saying Advincula failed in his vetting process for potential witnesses.

In a statement Tuesday, Trillanes dismissed Sabio’s withdrawal of the ICC complaint.

“Ang mga nagbigay ng testimonya do'n sa finile ni Sabio ay ang mga testigo na sina Arturo Lascañas at Edgar Matobato. Si Sabio ay abogado lamang nila na nag-facilitate no'ng pagsulat ng kanilang testimonya,” he said.

(The ones who provided the testimonies in the communication Sabio filed were witnesses Arturo Lascañas and Edgar Matobato. Sabio merely acted as the lawyer who facilitated the drafting of their testimonies.)

Trillanes also pointed out, he and former Magdalo Rep. Gary Alejano also had a separate communication.

As of Dec. 2018, the ICC OTP had received 52 communications on the Philippines’ drug war. More communications were filed in 2019.

In her 2019 annual report, Bensouda said her office had examined a wide range of sources, such as hundreds of media and academic articles, reports and public statements of intergovernmental, governmental and non-governmental organizations.

She said they would endeavor to finish the preliminary exam by 2020.


For Trillanes, the fact that “Duterte forces” like suspended lawyer Lorenzo Gadon engaged Sabio is a clear indication that they supposedly fear the upcoming ICC ruling.

Gadon was seen in the video asking Sabio to explain what he was signing. He also provided Sabio’s video clip to the media.

In July last year, Gadon assisted in the filing of the Bikoy sedition complaint against opposition figures.

He also represented Davao-based businesswoman Guillermina Barrido in her kidnapping complaint filed in August against Trillanes, Sabio, Jesuit priest Albert Alejo and a certain Sister Ling despite a Supreme Court ruling in June suspending him from practice for 3 months.