MANILA – President Rodrigo Duterte may be liable for crimes against humanity due to his war on drugs that has claimed over 7,000 lives, according to international group Human Rights Watch.
HRW said that while Duterte has no direct involvement in the killings linked to his controversial campaign, he has “made himself criminally liable under international law for the unlawful killings as a matter of command responsibility.”
“The president, senior officials, and others implicated in unlawful killings could be held liable for crimes against humanity, which are serious offenses committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack on a civilian population,” HRW said in its report.
“The numerous and seemingly organized deadly attacks on the publicly targeted group of drug suspects could amount to crimes against humanity as defined by the International Criminal Court, to which the Philippines is a party.”
The HRW made this assertion after releasing its report containing several witnesses’ accounts of widespread abuse of police power. The report also establishes links between the police force and so-called vigilantes.
Since Duterte assumed power in July 2016, over 7,000 people have been killed as a result of the drug war, but the government is only taking responsibility for about 2,500 of these deaths. Police say these killings resulted from 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 “vigilantes,” are 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 killings were in self-defense.
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.
Meantime, a Palace official on Thursday said there was no basis to say Duterte was behind the thousands killed in his administration's drug war.
"What I’m saying is there is no basis that the President is behind all these killings. He is saying that there is corruption of the policemen, but that doesn’t mean that he is behind the corruption of these policemen," Chief Presidential Legal Counsel Salvador Panelo said in an interview with ANC's "Headstart."
"They're saying that there are police that are killing, [but] that doesn’t say that he [Duterte] is the one behind these killings," he added.
Panelo also insisted Duterte is actually trying to solve the country's problem.
"The reverse is true. He is precisely doing something to stop the drug menace in this country," he said, adding that some of the killings were conducted by criminal syndicates.