Bulacan province near Manila has emerged as the deadliest “killing field” in Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on illegal drugs, rights group Amnesty International said Monday in a new report that urged the United Nations to investigate.
The watchdog described the scale of alleged abuses committed nationwide during the administration’s three-year-old counter-narcotics campaign as at “the threshold of crimes against humanity.”
After Duterte’s top police enforcers were transferred from Manila amid growing complaints of abuse, evidence showed that the new epicenter of killings had moved to Bulacan, the London-based rights group said.
“Bulacan is now the country’s bloodiest killing field, according to official figures,” AI said in the executive summary of its report.
“These killings took place across Bulacan province between May 2018 and April 2019,” AI said, adding that its investigation had identified 20 cases in which 27 people were killed during that period, and “many of which appear to be extrajudicial executions.”
BenarNews could not determine if these deaths were included in the government’s latest data. Last month, the national police said the drug war, which began when Duterte took office in June 2016, had left 6,600 suspected drug dealers and addicts dead. Many of the new deaths – more than 1,000 – were recorded since Jan. 1.
In previous years, a majority of the deaths occurred in the capital Manila, mostly in slum areas where the crime rate has been high and where Duterte defended intensified police crackdowns as justified.
Monday’s statement builds on a 2017 AI report alleging that police had “systematically targeted” the poor and defenseless, including planting evidence and fabricating official incident reports.
“It is not safe to be poor in President Duterte’s Philippines,” said Nicholas Bequelin, AI’s regional director for East and Southeast Asia. “All it takes to be murdered is an unproven accusation that someone uses, buys, or sells drugs.”
Wherever the AI team went to investigate drug-related killings “ordinary people were terrified,” he said.
“The Duterte administration has created a deadly numbers game where officials must manufacture lists and monitor them, regardless of whether the individuals on it actually use or sell drugs. This insatiable and vicious system rewards blind compliance and murder,” Bequelin said.
Duterte spokesman and legal adviser Salvador Panelo blasted the AI report, which he called biased.
“They are saying that there have been murders in this country as if all those who were killed in the police operations have been intentionally slaughtered or killed by the policemen.
“But as we have repeatedly said, these are the result of legitimate police operations and those subject of this process have resisted violently,” he said, adding, “under the law, the officers are entitled to self-defense.”
He said the presumption of regularity – which is what the law calls for – was present in all the cases while daring critics to file a proper case in court if they believed their rights were trampled. Under the presumption, courts assume that government officials properly discharged their official duties unless there is evidence showing otherwise.
“They should have filed a case against the policemen and we would have welcomed it. As the president says, we will not tolerate any police abuse because there will always be hell to pay for them,” Panelo said without mentioning that Duterte often said he would protect police from prosecution.
Panelo challenged the international organization for its report, pointing out that the government would rather engage with local rights group than AI as it tried to “politicize” the killings.
“Let our own groups assist our own Filipinos. We don’t need them. We have a battery of human rights activists in this country,” he said. “We don’t need interference from any other human rights groups.”
Duterte won the 2016 presidential race by a landslide after promising to bring down the nation’s high crime rate. Since then, police operations have not been without controversy.
Three police officers were convicted in 2018 for murdering a teenager they had identified as a drug dealer. The boy’s body was found slumped near a pig sty, but witnesses testified there was no shootout and that the 17-year-old was summarily executed and evidence planted.
A 3-year-old girl was killed during a June 30 drug raid. Duterte’s former top cop was criticized later for comments about the girl’s killing, in which he said “shit happens during operations.”
Days later, Iceland led more than two dozen countries in calling for the U.N. Human Rights Council to formally investigate the killings in the Philippines.
In addition, Duterte faces two complaints before the Hague-based International Criminal Court. The first was filed by a former police officer and a self-confessed assassin who alleged that Duterte, while serving as Davao city mayor, ordered the killings of criminals and opponents. The second was filed by relatives of eight people killed in the drug war.
Jojo Rinoza in Manila contributed to this report.