Cops abused power in Duterte's drug war: Human Rights Watch report

Dharel Placido, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Mar 02 2017 08:23 AM | Updated as of Mar 02 2017 09:33 AM

The body of a suspected drug dealer killed after an alleged shootout with police in Caloocan, Metro Manila, September 9, 2016. Carlo Gabuco for Human Rights Watch

MANILA – International non-government organization Human Rights Watch on Thursday released a report revealing alleged abuse of power by policemen carrying out President Rodrigo Duterte’s controversial war on drugs, suggesting that cops were involved in so-called extrajudicial killings.

Since Duterte assumed power in July 2016, over 7,000 suspected drug users and traffickers have been killed, but the government is only taking responsibility for about 2,500 of these deaths, which it said was a result of legitimate police operations where most of the slain suspects shot it out (nanlaban) with authorities.

The rest of the deaths were categorized as “under investigation” where most of the assailants, often called “vigilantes,” were unknown.

But the report of the New York-based human rights organization, citing numerous testimonies from the relatives of slain suspects and other witnesses, showed there seemed to be police complicity in the killings supposedly carried out by the vigilantes.

In some of the fatal police operations, there were also indications that the killings were premeditated, debunking the usual police claim that the killing was made out of self-defense.

“While the Philippine National Police have publicly sought to distinguish between suspects killed while resisting police arrest and killings by ‘unknown gunmen’ or ‘vigilantes’, Human Rights Watch found no such distinction in the cases investigated,” HRW said in its report.

“In several cases we investigated, the police dismissed allegations of involvement and instead classified such killings as ‘found bodies’ or ‘deaths under investigation’ when only hours before the suspects had been in police custody. Such cases call into question government assertions that the majority of killings have been committed by vigilantes ‘fed up with the current justice system’ or rival drug gangs.”

There were also cases wherein policemen would plant pieces of evidence, such as firearms, spent ammunition or illegal drugs, on the body of a slain suspect, to justify the killing.

Some witness accounts also bolster the theory that not all people killed in Duterte’s drug war were involved in drugs. In one of the cases HRW examined, a person was killed because he just happened to have a similar-sounding nickname with a local drug dealer.

HRW examined 24 incidents, from as early as June 8, 2016 up to January 14, 2017, which resulted in 32 deaths. In many of these cases, the relatives of some of the victims admitted that their slain loved ones were once involved in either drug abuse or peddling. However, the relatives said the victims were killed in cold blood, defenseless and begging for their lives.

“Whether or not the unidentified assailants doing the actual killing were police officers or merely agents of the police, the similar modus operandi in these operations shows planning and coordination by the police, and in some cases, local civilian officials. These were not killings by individual officers or by “vigilantes” operating separately from the authorities,” HRW said.

“The cases investigated in this report suggest that police involvement in the killings of drug suspects extends far beyond the officially acknowledged cases of police killings in ‘buy-bust’ operations. Furthermore, the government’s failure to arrest—let alone prosecute—a single police officer for their role in any of the ‘war on drugs killings that Duterte has encouraged and instigated sends a message that those involved need not fear being held to account, and that future killings can be carried out with impunity.”

HRW also noted that Duterte’s war on drugs seemed to have only targeted the poor, and that most of the victims in the cases it examined were mere drug users, and not dealers at all.

“Almost all of the victims were either unemployed or worked menial jobs, including as rickshaw drivers or porters, and lived in slum neighborhoods or informal settlements,” HRW said.

Since of the most of the killings took place in the slums, suspected drug users most of the time find themselves defenseless when policemen, who are sometimes accompanied by plainclothes men, bang on their door and barge into their rooms, in violation of their basic rights.

“The assailants would not identify themselves or provide warrants. Family members reported hearing beatings and their loved ones begging for their lives,” HRW said.

“The shooting could happen immediately – behind closed doors or on the street; or the gunmen might take the suspect away, where minutes later shots would ring out and local residents would find the body; or the body wold be dumped elsewhere later, sometimes with hands tied or the head wrapped in plastic.

“Local residents often said they saw uniformed police on the outskirts of the incident, securing the perimeter – but even if not visible before a shooting, special crime scene investigators would arrive within minutes.”

‘TOKHANG’ ABUSED?

One of the elements in Duterte’s war on drugs was the identification of drug pushers and users in a barangay (village), a practice called by the president’s police chief, Ronald dela Rosa, as “Oplan Tokhang”, which means “knock and plead” in the Visayan language.

This knock and plead method was supposed to be harmless, as Dela Rosa asserted that this merely aimed at convincing a drug user or pusher to let go of his illegal habits. But HRW noted that in the cases it examined, this method proved to be a useful tool for unscrupulous policemen and their agents in identifying people who would later be killed in drug operations or vigilante assaults.

“Human Rights Watch’s investigations into specific incidents found the police responsible for extrajudicial executions – the deliberate killing by state forces of their agents of a person in custody,” HRW said.

“A clear modus operandi of police operations emerged. In many cases, it began with an individual receiving a visit or a phone call from an official from the local barangay informing them that they were on a drug ‘watch list’ drawn up by barangay officials and the police. Such visits would often proved not so much to be warnings as a method of confirming the identity and whereabouts of a target.”

HRW cited the case of Rogie Sebastian, 32, who refused to surrender himself to authorities despite being included in the neighborhood watchlist, arguing that he had given up drug use months ago.

Two weeks later, on September 19, 2017, armed masked men wearing bulletproof vests arrived at his home in Manila and handcuffed him.

“I could hear Rogie begging for his life from outside the room,” a relative said. “We were crying and the other armed man threatened to kill us as well.”

A neighbor said: “I heard the gunshots. There were also uniformed cops outside, they did not go inside the house. But the three killers in civilian clothes came and went on a motorcycle without any interference from the uniformed cops.”

But not being on the neighborhood’s drug watchlist was enough guarantee that someone would be spared from a fatal police operation.

In the case of Manila resident Renato Badano, an occasional shabu user according to his relatives, he was not listed in the neighborhood watchlist so he ignored a large anti-drug operation in his neighborhood last July 7, 2016.

Badano, who was jailed for 8 years for robbery, was however accosted “for checking” by seven armed and masked men in civilian dress. He was later found dead in a nearby riverside dock.

USUAL SCENE: WHAT COPS ALLEGEDLY DO

Armed, masked assailants in civilian clothes casually walking out of a scene after killing a drug suspect and even mingling with uniformed policemen who were curiously in the same area was a recurring circumstance in most of the cases examined by HRW.

“Local residents often said they saw uniformed police in the vicinity before the incident, securing the perimeter—but even if not visible before a shooting, special crime scene investigators would arrive within minutes,” HRW said.

“A previously unknown .38 caliber handgun and a packet of shabu almost always would be found next to the body. And instead of fleeing from the police, the gunmen would mingle with them. Human Rights Watch is not aware of a single arrest made in connection with any of the killings we documented.”

Virgilio Mirano, a 39-year-old occasional drug user according to his relatives, was killed in an impoverished neighborhood in Navotas last September 27, 2016 by motorcycle-riding assailants. The killing was carried out even as a mobile uniformed police unit was nearby, operating an ad hoc checkpoint.

“Following the killing, one of the gunman was seeing giving a thumbs-up sign to the nearby police officers, and shouted ‘OK, all clear!’ to the uniformed officers,” HRW said, citing witness accounts.

“The four gunmen then proceeded to drive their motorcycles unimpeded away from the scene through the police checkpoint.

This was also the case in the killing of transgender woman Ron-Ron “Heart” De Chavez.

According to HRW, De Chavez was accosted by seven gunmen late January 10 and killed a few blocks from her home.

“As De Chavez’s relatives left their home in search for her, they crossed the gunmen as they were heading back to their motorcycles parked outside the alley. The relatives said the gunmen were laughing about the killing,” HRW said.

“The masked, armed gunmen appeared unconcern about getting caught by the police for the killing, despite the heavy police presence in the neighborhood, suggesting they were collaborating with the police or were police officers themselves.”

WRONG TARGET, INNOCENT PEOPLE BEING KILLED?

HRW also came across cases where relatives claimed that their slain loved ones were not involved in illegal drugs.

One of these is the case of Aljon De Mesa, a 23-year-old fish port worker. According to his relatives, Aljon was never involved in illegal drugs as he suffered from a pulmonary disease.

De Mesa was killed by men in civilian clothes while he was watching television inside a friend’s house last September 20, 2016. His body would later be found under a nearby bridge.

In another case, Bonifacio Antonio, 56, was having drinks with two other friends when six armed in civilian clothes approached them and looked for a certain “Buni,” which was apparently the nickname of a known local drug dealer.

“One of the armed men asked Antonio, ‘Are you Buni?’ Bonifacio Antonio, whose nickname is Bonnie, replied, ‘Yes, I’m Bonnie.’ One of the armed men immediately shot Antonio in the head, killing him instantly,” HRW said, citing witness accounts.

“According to relatives of Antonio, the SOCO police investigators arrived while the armed, masked men dressed in black who had carried out the killing were still in the neighborhood, leading them to believe that the killers were undercover police operatives.”

‘THEIR WORD AGAINST OURS’

In almost all of the cases examined by HRW, it noted that the police reports were usually citing similar circumstances – that the policemen fired at the suspect because the latter pulled out a gun in the middle of a “buy-bust” operation.

However, HRW said, the police reports most of the time contradict with the accounts of the relatives of the slain suspects and other witnesses.

“Human Rights Watch examined police reports in virtually all of the cases we investigated. The accounts differed markedly from those provided by the relatives we interviewed, yet they were very similar to each other,” HRW said.

“The suspect was invariably described as a dealer who attempted to sell to undercover officers conducting a ‘buy-bust’ operation…According to the reports, the suspect, after being put under arrest and sometimes handcuffed, allegedly pulled out a weapon and sought to shoot the police. In every case, however, the suspect was killed and none of the arresting officers were harmed.”

HRW cited the case of 34-year-old Edward Sentorias, who police said pointed a gun at a police officer during a raid in his house in Tondo, Manila.

Sentorias’ relative disputed this.

“We were waiting for the SOCO [police investigators] to arrive. I saw one of the police go inside with an aluminum briefcase. Out of curiosity I went to look through the window. I saw the officer open the briefcase and he took out the gun and some sachets, and placed them there,” the relative said.

“I went back to where I was, and was totally shocked. I couldn’t even complain. If we go complain, what is our chance against the authorities? The government declared the evidence was found inside his house, so it is their word against ours. I have no reason to lie about this. That is when I realized not everyone being killed is guilty of fighting back. If they don’t find evidence inside the house, they need to fabricate it, so they don’t get busted.”

In what could also be considered a damning evidence against the police, HRW also documented the case of an unidentified person who was killed in Malate, Manila last January 14.

The HRW quoted a witness as saying that a gun was planted beside the body of the man, who was heard being beaten up before being shot dead.

“I saw the suspect sprawled without a gun. Then when the policeman saw us, we were asked to leave because we were taking pictures.… There was no gun yet when we took pictures. When we returned, we saw that a gun appeared at the scene [next to the body]. Then we started to think, that this is not really what happened. Why did they do that?” the witness said.

PURGE IN PNP

The HRW report was released two days after Duterte ordered the return of select policemen to the war on drugs.

The PNP suspended its war on drugs after Korean national Jee Ick-joo was killed by alleged rogue cops. But just after a month since the suspension, Duterte, saying he lacks men who would carry out his campaign, decided to enlist the police once again.

In the face of mounting criticisms about the credibility of the PNP, Duterte sought an internal cleansing of the police force, sending some 300 scalawags to Basilan.

On Tuesday, February 28, Duterte appeared bent on launching a purge of bad eggs within the police ranks, threatening them that they would be killed soon.

The president once described rogue cops as one of the worst types of criminals, since they know the ins and outs of law enforcement and have access to government resources.

While the short-lived suspension of the police’s war on drugs had been lauded, HRW said Duterte, as well his subordinates involved in the anti-drug campaign, cannot escape accountability over the thousands of deaths.

“No evidence thus far shows that Duterte planned or ordered specific extrajudicial killings. Some of the killings, particularly during the campaign period, appear to have been carried out in anticipation of a broad anti-drug campaign in which legal constraints would be lifted. But once in office, Duterte’s repeated calls for killings as part of his drug campaign could constitute acts instigating the crime of murder. In addition, Duterte’s statements that seek to encourage vigilantes among the general population to commit violence against suspected drug users would constitute incitement to violence,” HRW said.

“Furthermore, the doctrine of superior responsibility imposes criminal liability on officials for the unlawful acts of subordinates, where the superior knew or had reason to know of the unlawful acts, and failed to prevent or punish those acts. The unlawful killings being carried out by police forces ultimately under Duterte’s command have repeatedly been brought to his attention by the media, the United Nations, foreign governments. and domestic and international nongovernmental organizations, including Human Rights Watch. His public comments in response to those allegations are evidence that he knows about them.”