GENEVA- A probe into whether Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte ran a death squad is making progress following crucial whistleblower testimony this week, the head of the country's rights watchdog said Tuesday.
Philippine Commission on Human Rights chief Jose Gascon, who is investigating allegations that Duterte orchestrated murders while mayor of the southern city of Davao, said new evidence from a retired policeman had removed "murkiness" about events in the president's past.
Arturo Lascanas, an ex-officer in Davao, went public this week with claims that Duterte commanded a death squad that killed many people including a pregnant woman, and paid for the assassination of a journalist.
Lascanas said he himself took part in the death squads and even killed his two brothers.
Presidential spokesman Martin Anadanar on Monday rejected all the claims by what he called "a self-confessed hitman".
"We feel that this is an important piece in clearing up what the role of then-mayor, now President, Duterte had with respect to the Davao death squads", Gascon told AFP in Geneva on the sidelines of a human rights conference.
The rights commission had previously investigated claims that while mayor Duterte commanded hitmen in Davao who killed more than a thousand petty criminals.
When that probe ended in 2012, Gascon said his office recommended that charges be brought but prosecutors did not act.
The commission does not have the power to bring cases itself but Gascon voiced hope that the criminal justice system would act if the inquiry uncovered evidence to justify charges.
The commission reopened its investigation late last year after Duterte, who was elected president in May, boasted that he had killed criminals years ago.
He has over the years variously denied and confirmed the existence of a Davao death squad.
But Duterte's political rise has made the investigation and witness protection increasingly difficult, Gascon said.
"We are of course extremely concerned about possible reprisals upon (whistleblowers) because the mayor is now president of the country," Gascon said, while encouraging more people to come forward.
The Philippines' main witness protection scheme is run by the justice department, which falls under the president's authority.
With Duterte in charge the rights commission has "encountered more and more witnesses and victims who are unwilling to approach the whistleblower program," Gascon said.
The commission has tried to organize alternative safeguards despite limited resources but "our small witness protection program is currently overbooked," he added.
Democracy under threat?
Duterte, 71, won elections last year after promising to eradicate drugs in society by killing tens of thousands of people.
He launched the drug war immediately after taking office in June, and more than 6,500 people have died in the crackdown.
The government has also charged a prominent Duterte critic, Senator Leila de Lima, with drug trafficking, accusations that Gascon called "trumped-up ... political harassment".
The rights chief accused Duterte of apparent disregard for the law and use of state institutions to attack political opponents. He said this may destroy the democratic gains made after Ferdinand Marcos's dictatorship fell in 1986.
"If he continues in the trajectory that he is pursuing, ... ultimately what we might see is a trajectory towards an illiberal democracy where a popularly elected president over time will undermine the democratic institutions."
"We had hoped for better in this country," Gascon added.