ICC appeals chamber rejects Philippines' bid to suspend drug war investigation

Rowegie Abanto and Davinci Maru, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Mar 28 2023 08:07 AM | Updated as of Mar 28 2023 10:54 PM

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MANILA (3rd UPDATE) — The International Criminal Court (ICC) appeals chamber has rejected the request of the Philippines to suspend the investigation into the killings under the Duterte administration's drug war campaign and the alleged Davao Death Squad.

In its decision dated March 27, the ICC appeals chamber said that the Philippines failed to cite "persuasive reasons" to support its request to temporarily put off the resumption of the probe while the tribunal hears its appeal against the investigation's resumption. 

"At the outset, the Appeals Chamber observes that the Philippines did not include any reasons and arguments in support of the Request for Suspensive Effect in its Notice of Appeal. It did so only in the Appeal Brief. The Appeals Chamber notes that it would have been preferable for the Philippines to have included its supporting arguments for the Request in the Notice of Appeal," it said.

In its plea, the Philippines argued that the ICC had no jurisdiction over the country, citing its withdrawal from the Rome Statute that established the court.

But the appeals chamber said the Philippines failed to explain "how the alleged absence of a jurisdictional or legal basis for the resumption" of the probe would defeat the prosecutor's "very purpose and create an irreversible situation that could not be corrected."

The ICC chamber said the Philippines also failed to explain its argument that the investigation would have "far-reaching and inimical consequences" on suspects, witnesses, and victims.

The Philippines could proceed with its own investigations into the anti-narcotics campaign "irrespective of the ongoing proceedings" of the ICC, the appeals chamber added. 

ICC Prosecutor Karim Khan, in a submission in February, opposed the Philippine government’s plea to suspend the probe while the appeal on substance was pending. 

He pointed out that a suspension is only granted if the implementation of the ruling would create an irreversible situation, lead to consequences that would be very difficult to correct and might be irreversible, or could potentially defeat the purpose of the appeal.

"The Philippines has not provided any argument substantiating its request for suspensive effect, nor shown the implementation of the Decision would create an irreversible situation or that would be very difficult to correct or that could potentially defeat the purpose of the appeal. No such grounds for granting suspensive effect exist," Khan said.

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A rights watchdog on Tuesday welcomed the ruling as well as the ICC's move to allow families of drug war victims to participate in the proceedings.

"This is definitely a welcome news to us in the human rights community," Human Rights Watch senior researcher Carlos Conde told ANC"s "Rundown".

"If you look at the ruling, at the decision, it pointed out that the Philippine government failed to explain why they want the investigation suspended," he added.

Conde also pointed out that it was "extremely important" for the international tribunal to allow families of the victims to be involved in the proceedings.

"For practical reasons for the ICC, hearing the testimonies, the voices of the families of drug war victims is also key to determining what exactly happened in the past 6 years or even beyond," he said.

"It's not just because the families of the victims of the drug war are given a voice but also they can provide more information to the ICC that might come up during these interactions," he added.

The Philippines has repeatedly argued that its judicial system is working and the ICC has no jurisdiction over the country.

"I really don't know what they want to happen, if they want to take over our legal system, they want to take over our armed forces or police forces? They will have to come in with a compulsory process for us to be able to work out anything with them," Justice Secretary Jesus Crispin "Boying" Remulla told ANC's "Headstart". 

"Right now, we're telling them, we can do it. Give us your complaint, we will do it. But if they insist on doing it, well, good luck to them because they cannot enter our country to impose a rule of law different from ours and our rule of law here is run by Filipinos," he added.

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The ICC launched a formal inquiry in September 2021, only to suspend it 2 months later after Manila said it was re-examining several hundred cases of drug operations that led to deaths at the hands of police, hitmen and vigilantes. The ICC prosecutor later asked to reopen the inquiry in June 2022.

Announcing the probe's resumption in January, the ICC said its pre-trial chamber was "not satisfied that the Philippines is undertaking relevant investigations that would warrant a deferral of the court's investigations".

Menardo Guevarra, the chief lawyer for President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.'s' government, earlier said: "It is our intention to exhaust our legal remedies, more particularly elevating the matter to the ICC appeals chamber."

Solicitor General Guevarra and Remulla both said Manila, instead of the ICC, should have jurisdiction over alleged drug war crimes.

"They are insulting us," Remulla earlier told reporters. "I will not stand for any of these antics that will tend to question our sovereignty, our status as a sovereign country." 

Officially, around 6,000 people were killed in Duterte's "war on drugs", which began in 2016, but rights groups say that up to 30,000 may have died, some innocent victims, and that corruption was rife among security forces that acted with impunity.

Marcos, elected last year, has vowed to continue the drug war but with a focus on prevention and rehabilitation. He has, so far, ruled out reversing Duterte's decision to pull the Philippines out of the ICC.

— With reports from Mike Navallo, ABS-CBN News; Agence France-Presse