Philippines: Church Says Witnesses Want to Speak Out Against War on Drugs

Mark Navales
Cotabato, Philippines
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171002-PH-church-620.jpg Altar servers rehearse their duties at the San Roque Cathedral in Caloocan, east of Manila, Sept. 14, 2017.

A Catholic Church leader on Monday said several police officers whom he declined to identify had come forward offering to testify against President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs after the recent deaths of three teenagers triggered protests.

Archbishop Socrates Villegas said in a statement that the men had come forward because they were bothered by their consciences.

“They have expressed their desire to come out in the open about their participation in extrajudicial killings and summary executions,” he said, adding that the church was willing to provide protection and shelter to the witnesses.

He said the church would not turn the witnesses over to the government if their “preference was to stay with the institution.”

Thousands of protesters took to the streets in northern Manila in late August to join the funeral march for Kian Loyd delos Santos, 17. The teen was last seen being led away by two plainclothes officers moments before he was killed.

A senate investigation into the death showed the boy was shot at close range, contrary to police statements that he had fought it out with officers. It also said a gun was in the boy’s left hand, when in fact, he was right-handed.

Villegas asked the Catholic faithful to accommodate potential witnesses and to give them access to seminaries and “other secure buildings” because they could “have something important to tell the nation or testify on before the proper forum.”

The archbishop did not reveal the names of the potential witnesses, but his statement appears to signal a shift in the church’s stance.

Although to date it has tried to avoid direct confrontation with the nation’s leader, the new pronouncement appears to challenge Duterte’s year-old presidency. More than 80 percent of the Philippines’ 103 million people are Catholics.

Duterte has pledged a speedy and truthful probe into the boy’s killing and claimed the killings of teenagers were aimed at discrediting his regime.

‘Fear for their lives’

Shortly after delos Santos’ killing, police were accused of taking a 14-year-old boy and a 19-year-old man into custody. The boy’s mutilated body, his head wrapped in packing tape, was found two weeks later.

The 19-year-old was killed in Manila, allegedly after trying to rob a taxi driver and engaging in a shootout with police.

Relatives of the two said they went out to buy food and never returned home.

Sen. Bam Aquino on Monday appealed to the church to encourage witnesses to come out and share what they know about the killings.

Two activist priests, Robert Reyes and Bong Sarabia, testified before a Senate inquiry that they had been approached by some witnesses who were afraid to testify.

The priests told the senators they were also approached by police officers who have “first-hand knowledge” about the killings.

The witnesses have “refused to reveal what they know because of fear for their lives and reprisal from people who might be affected by their disclosure,” Aquino said.

“Let’s cooperate and find a way so the truth will come out, so that we all will have justice,” he said.

“Hopefully, we can come to a situation where the (police) will be more transparent with groups and sectors that have raised serious concerns with the war on drugs.”

Felipe Villamor in Manila contributed to this report.


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