MANILA - A lawyer on Thursday described as "significant" progress recent findings by the International Criminal Court (ICC) on alleged crimes against humanity in the Philippines linked to the administration's drug war.
The Hague-based court’s prosecutor Fatou Bensouda can seek authorization from the pre-trial chamber to conduct full investigation on President Rodrigo Duterte's anti-drug campaign, Centerlaw deputy executive director Gilbert Andres said.
"That's a very significant finding that's there's a belief now from the Office of Prosecutor of ICC that crimes against humanity have been committed in the Philippines," he told ANC's "Matters of Fact".
On Dec. 14, the ICC Office of the Prosecutor said it found "reasonable basis" to believe that crimes against humanity have been committed in Duterte's continuing campaign against illegal drugs.
Bensouda's office opened in February 2018 a preliminary examination into the slay of thousands of suspected drug users and peddlers in the Philippines, including those killed for allegedly resisting arrest or were allegedly gunned down by law enforcers disguised as vigilantes. Her office intends to decide in the first half of 2021 on whether it would pursue a full investigation on the incidents.
While the ICC report is a "substantive" step in further investigating Duterte's bloody drug war, Andres tempered his expectation because the current administration may not likely cooperate.
"If the Philippine authorities will not cooperate, and I think they will not, they have stated it, then there will be a difficulty in terms of finding the pieces of evidence," he said.
On Duterte's orders in light of the probe, the Philippines withdrew from the ICC in 2019. With this, Malacañang has said the tribunal no longer has jurisdiction over the case.
The President also enjoys immunity from any suit under Philippine law, which Andres said could be a legal impediment in the investigation.
If the ICC finds Duterte liable for the crimes, he said it would be "more expedient" to prosecute the President after the latter's term ends.
Amid accusations the ICC prosecutor was playing politics in its drug war inquiry, Andres believed Bensouda has no ax to grind against Duterte.
"I don't think that they prejudged the President. In fact, there were no mentions of the President in all the statements of ICC prosecutor," he said.
"There was not even an iota of words that will say it was the President. It was the situation... in the Philippines. Therefore, there is no basis to say that the prosecutor has been biased."
Asked if Duterte should be scared with the development, Andres had this to say.
"I think that the President and the Philippine government should really think seriously about this report of the Philippines in the sense that they should really stop any policies of extrajudicial killing here in the Philippines," he said.
Official figures placed the death toll in police operations in the Philippines at over 6,000 since Duterte took office in July 2016. Government has denied being behind summary killings, saying those slain had violently resisted arrest, prompting officers to defend themselves.
However, human rights groups said the tally could be higher, including cases classified as "homicide under investigation," which are mostly related to the drug war.
Days after the release of the ICC report, Duterte said Wednesday he never ordered law enforcers to kill drug pushers and other suspects.
"I never ordered that. Remember in all of my utterances, my anger when I said do not destroy my country... Because I will kill you. I didn’t say MPD (Manila Police District) will kill you, the military will … I said I will kill you," he said in Filipino.