MANILA — Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra on Wednesday admitted for the first time that weapons used in “nanlaban” cases in the country’s anti-drug war campaign were not fully examined, even as he insisted the Philippine justice system is working.
Speaking from Manila at a high level meeting at the 46th regular session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland, Guevarra shared findings of an inter-agency panel he formed to review deaths related to the drug war, a commitment he promised the UNHRC in June last year.
“Our initial and preliminary findings confirm that in many of these cases, law enforcement agents asserted that the subject of anti-drug operations resisted arrest or attempted to draw a weapon and fight back. Yet, no full examination of the weapon recovered was conducted. No verification of its ownership was undertaken. No request for ballistic examination or paraffin test was pursued until its completion,” he said.
“It was also noted that among others, in more than half of the records reviewed, the law enforcement agents involved failed to follow standard protocols pertaining to coordination with other agencies and the processing of the crime scene,” he added.
This is the first time that a top official of the Duterte administration admitted wide-scale lapses in President Rodrigo Duterte’s flagship anti-drug campaign and comes on the heels of various criticisms from the international community.
In July 2019, the UNHRC adopted a resolution seeking a comprehensive report on the human rights situation in the Philippines.
In June last year, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights released a damning report which documented widespread human rights violations and persistent impunity in the Philippines.
Guevarra's statements help explain the findings of that June report, which found that Philippine "police had repeatedly recovered guns bearing the same serial numbers from different victims in different locations,” based on police reports on 25 operations it examined, which all took place in Metro Manila from August 2016 to June 2017.
“OHCHR identified seven handguns with unique serial numbers. Each handgun appeared in at least two separate crime scenes, while two reappeared in five different crime scenes. The pattern suggests planting of evidence by police officers and casts doubt on the self-defence narrative, implying that the victims were likely unarmed when killed,” it concluded.
Guevarra said Wednesday they have referred the findings to the country’s national police authorities, who told him “appropriate internal investigations of these incidents have been conducted” while “scores of police officers have been recommended for administrative and criminal action.”
“It is now the immediate task of the review panel to ensure that these recommendations have been acted upon and carried out by the proper disciplinarian authorities. And that measures are adopted to minimize loss of lives during legitimate law-enforcement operations against illegal drugs,” he said.
But the OHCHR June 2020 report said there has been “near-impunity” for widespread and systematic extrajudicial killings.
Of the 4,583 investigations the PNP’s Internal Affairs Service reportedly launched from July 2016 to May 2019, only 1 case — that of 17-year-old Kian delos Santos — resulted in conviction of 3 police officers, due largely to a closed-circuit television (CCTV) footage and public outrage.
It was also not certain, the OHCHR said, how many of the 9,172 police personnel with administrative cases were actually involved in alleged extrajudicial killings in connection witht the drug war.
But in any case, the OHCHR added, administrative sanctions are insufficient, noting also the lack of progress in investigations at the Office of the Ombudsman.
“ASLEEP AT THE SWITCH”
Phil Robertson, Human Rights Watch’s Deputy Asia Director, said Guevarra’s statements only showed that both the DOJ and senior police were “asleep at the switch” as the killings in the drug war intensified.
“He is now revealing a reality that was obvious to those in the affected communities, namely that after killings occurred, there were no subsequent police investigations into the circumstances of what took place. The real name for that is impunity, and these police failures were so systematic that these oversights go well past the accidental or inadvertent failures,” he said.
“The truth is the Philippines National Police were operationalized to act as a government hit squad against suspects on lists in the ‘drug war’, and they received direct encouragement to do so from President Duterte on down to their local commanders. The failures to investigate these killings were baked into the ‘drug war’ model from the start, with the police prepared to act because they knew that not only can get away with it, but that they're supposed to get away with it,” he added.
Robertson challenged the Philippine Justice department to make good on its pledges.
The drug war review is a major commitment by the Philippines to the United Nations Human Rights Council, seen by many human rights organizations as the Philippine government’s way of evading a full-blown independent international probe into the drug war in the country that has killed more than 5,000 lives based on government figures — more than 30,000 according to rights groups.
Originally scheduled to be released in November 2020, the report’s release date was pushed back with the DOJ citing movement restrictions under the coronavirus pandemic and the damage wrought by successive typhoons that hit the country in late 2020.
Guevarra earlier said it will resort to “sufficient random sampling” instead of going through each of the 5,000 deaths.
Last month, Guevarra announced that the panel has finished its first partial report and has submitted it to the President but has yet to publicize the results.
Asked on Wednesday if the DOJ will release a copy of the partial report as previously promised, Guevarra said he would need to consult the other members of the panel if they “prefer to expand the geographical coverage of the review so that we may see the overall picture.”
He said the partial report covered police operations in Bulacan (including San Jode del Monte City), Pampanga (including Angeles City), Cavite (including Bacoor City) and parts of the National Capital Region, which areas have the “highest number of incidents.”
CHR LEFT OUT
But the Philippine Commission on Human Rights had already said it was left out of the drug war review, despite a previous promise during the 44th Session of this Council that the Philippine government will work closely with CHR.
In his speech Wednesday, Guevarra did not disclose which agencies took part in the review although he referred only to a contingent from the Justice department.
Instead, he told the UNHRC that the Philippine government has “initiated discussions with the CHR on how we could collaborate on the work of the interagency committee on extralegal killings, enforced disappearances, torture, and other grave violations of the right to life, liberty, and security of persons, more particularly on case buildup and evidence gathering.”
He also promised to work with the CHR to pass a law that will establish a national preventive mechanism as mandated under the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture.
PH JUSTICE SYSTEM WORKING?
Despite his admission, Guevarra insisted that the Philippine justice system is working.
“[T]he PH strongly emphasizes its legal and judicial system, its domestic accountability mechanisms are functionings as they should. We reject any attempt by any external entity to assume jurisdiction over internal matters which are being addressed more than adequately by our national institutions and authorities,” he said, in apparent reference to the principle of complementarity which governs the exercise of ICC’s jurisdiction.
Under the principle of complementarity, the courts at the national level should deal with serious violations and the Rome Statute, which created the ICC, is only complementary to national jurisdictions.
The ICC, as a court of “last resort,” steps in only when national legal systems fail to do so or purport to act but in reality are unwilling or unable to genuinely carry out investigations and prosecutions.
The ICC Office of the Prosecutor released a report in December last year saying there is “reasonable basis” to believe that crimes against humanity took place in the country from July 1, 2016 when President Duterte took office until March 16, 2019, when the Philippines’ withdrawal from the ICC took effect.
It also promised to finish its preliminary examination on the human rights situation in the Philippines in mid-2021, at the same time outgoing ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda makes way for incoming Prosecutor Karim Khan.
Rights group alliance KARAPATAN said Guevarra missed an important point in his speech about “working domestic accountability mechanisms” in the Philippines — “the killings continue.”
“What’s worse is that the domestic mechanisms have allowed such to continue with impunity, with such appalling injustice, that more than four years after, we are still counting the bodies, we are still looking at numerous perpetrators in uniform unpunished, and we still hear the President and his henchmen justify the murder spree. Indeed, there is no amount of window-dressing even at the UN that can hide these indisputable facts,” it said in a statement.
“If at all, the initial findings of the drug war panel as cited by Sec. Guevarra have only made the call to stop the killings and the policy on the drug war even more imperative. Such findings only prove that an independent probe is even more important, at a time that the human rights situation has gone into a steep descent to a full-blown crisis under an authoritarian regime,” it added.