MANILA— The International Criminal Court's investigation into the government's war on drugs has brought fresh hope for justice to families of victims of alleged extrajudicial killings under the Duterte administration.
"It’s a small victory. Gusto nating i-congratulate ang mga pamilya ng mga biktima. Ang desisyon na ito ay dahil sa pagpupursige na makahanap ng hustisya ang mga pamilya," Judy Pasimio, spokesperson of human rights network iDEFEND said.
(... We want to congratulate the families of victims. This decision is because of their perseverance in searching for justice.)
Judges at the International Criminal Court has approved a formal investigation into President Rodrigo Duterte's bloody campaign where thousands of suspected drug peddlers have died, many executed by police, according to activists.
Duterte and his police chiefs say the killings were in self-defense, while his government insists the ICC has no right to meddle in the country's affairs.
Government data shows 6,100 suspected drug dealers have been killed by security forces in anti-drug operations since Duterte, who won the elections on an anti-crime, anti-drug and anti-corruption platform, took office in mid-2016.
Rights groups say many thousands more were assassinated in slum communities, mostly users killed by mystery gunmen who were never caught, and accuse police of involvement.
The investigation comes at a critical time for Duterte, who leaves office next year and cannot run for a second term. He has confirmed he will seek the vice presidency in the May 2022 polls, with critics saying it was a move to eventually return to the post via succession and get the benefit of immunity from suit.
For Human Rights Watch senior researcher Carlos Conde, the ICC investigation will make a big impact in next year's elections.
"They are going to make sure that whoever is the next President is going to be somebody close to the President. It can be Bong Go [or] Sara Duterte," he said, referring to the president's long-time aide, now a senator, and his daughter, currently mayor of the family bailiwick Davao City.
"So that to me shows they are very, very afraid of this and no one can protect President Duterte from the ICC, from the long arm of the law except those closest to him."
The Philippine Coalition for the International Criminal Court on Friday also urged police to cooperate in the investigation.
"We call on the involved policemen to testify for the EJK victims and their families. We believe there are still many in the PNP (Philippine National Police) who have conscience and values for truth and justice," PCICC co-chair Dr. Aurora Parong said.
Lawyer Kristina Conti of the National Union of Peoples' Lawyers, legal counsel for the group Rise Up, said they were willing to help the ICC prosecutors.
"What the ICC needs is evidence, plain and simple. If they can get the evidence aside from going to the Philippines, aside from presenting themselves before the Office of the President or any other office, they can proceed. They will have basis for the opening of trial," she told ANC.
The group Rise Up believes that Duterte should be held accountable for the bloody anti-narcotics crackdown.
“We have his directions on record. We have all these public statements, which even if Roque amd Panelo would brush them off as jokes but taken altogether, he really emboldened, instigated these killings at the least. He set up a conducive environment for killings and impunity," Conti said.
Also on Friday, the skeletal remains of those killed in the drug war were exhumed after the leases on their graves in different cemeteries in Metro Manila expired.
While it has been 5 years since the drug war, for Mary Jane Gerangco, the exhumation stirs painful memories. Her brother Raffy was among thousands killed in anti-drug operations.
"Sa palagay ko po kasi ang gobyerno… 'yung nakaupo sa gobyerno ang may pakana sa ganitong malawak na pagpatayan," she said.
(I believe the government... the one sitting on top is responsible for widespread killings.)
For Fr. Flavie Villanueva, who spearheads the exhumation effort, had this to say on the government's plan to shun the ICC investigation.
"Kung totoong malinis, bakit kailangang magtago? Kung totoong walang tinatago, bakit hindi manindigan?" he said.
(If they're was clean, why hide? If there's nothing to hide, why not take a stand?)
— Reports from Johnson Manabat, ABS-CBN News; Reuters