ICC Judges Approve Probe of Deaths Linked to Philippine Drug War

J.C. Gotinga and Basilio Sepe
ICC Judges Approve Probe of Deaths Linked to Philippine Drug War Philippine police walk past the bodies of drug gang members following a shootout in Maguindanao province, Jan. 23, 2021.
Mark Navales/BenarNews

Updated at 6:25 p.m. ET on 2021-09-15

A three-judge chamber at the International Criminal Court in The Hague approved on Wednesday a request by its former chief prosecutor to investigate thousands of drug war killings in the Philippines under President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration. 

The investigation is to cover the period between Nov. 1, 2011, and March 16, 2019, when the Philippines was a member nation of the ICC. The time frame includes part of Duterte’s tenure as mayor of the southern city of Davao, where he allegedly controlled an anti-drugs “death squad.”

The judges considered testimony from 204 victims before issuing their decision, The Hague-based body said in a statement.

“[T]he chamber found that there is a reasonable basis to proceed with an investigation, noting that [the] specific legal element of the crime against humanity of murder under Article 7(1)(a) of the statute has been met with respect to the killings committed throughout the Philippines,” the statement said.

It stressed that Duterte’s war on drugs could not be seen as a “legitimate law enforcement operation, and the killings neither as legitimate nor as mere excesses in an otherwise legitimate operation.” 

“Rather, the available material indicates, to the required standard, that a widespread and systematic attack against the civilian population took place pursuant to or in furtherance of a state policy,” it said.

The chamber concluded that “there is a reasonable basis for the prosecutor to proceed with the investigation, in the sense that the crime against humanity of murder appears to have been committed.” 

Since Duterte took power, at least 8,000 suspected dealers and addicts have been killed in police operations, according to government figures, while rights groups claim that the number could be thousands more when including extrajudicial killings blamed on government-linked vigilantes. 

While the Philippines pulled out of the treaty that created the ICC in March 2019, the court has insisted that it retains jurisdiction over alleged crimes in the Southeast Asian nation while it was a signatory to the accord – a period beginning in November 2011.

‘Beginning of the end’

Edre Olalia, president of the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers (NUPL), welcomed the news. 

“We hope that this is the beginning of the end of impunity,” he told BenarNews. “No one should be invincible and infallible. There is always a time for everything.” 

Cristina Palabay, secretary general of the rights group Karapatan, which assists families of victims of the drug war, called the announcement the beginning of making Duterte accountable. 

“We note that the chamber sees as apparent that the attacks against the civilian population in the drug war took place pursuant to or in furtherance of a state policy,” she said in a statement. “The chamber’s view that these attacks were widespread and systematic likewise reaffirms the views of the victims and their families.”

Presidential spokesmen could not be immediately reached for comment on the announcement, but Duterte has repeatedly insisted that he cannot be prosecuted by the ICC.

In addition, he insulted its former chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, who requested the investigation on June 14, and dared her to come to the Southeast Asian country to investigate him. 

At the time, Duterte spokesman Harry Roque said, “The president will never, ever cooperate.”

He also said the proposed investigation was “legally erroneous” and “politically motivated,” noting that Duterte’s political enemies brought the allegations against him.

Duterte’s six-year term ends in 2022, and he has announced plans to run for vice president. His longtime aide Christopher Go, now a senator, has been named by their party to run for president, but has said he does not plan to do so.

Presidents and vice presidents are elected separately to a single six-year term. Duterte, who cannot seek a second term under the constitution, announced his candidacy for the number two spot in July. 

“The law says if you are vice president, you have immunity. Then I will just run for vice president,” he said at the time.

However, constitutional lawyers have noted that presidents, but not vice presidents, enjoy immunity from lawsuits.

As rights groups hailed the ICC decision, they grieved the death of lawyer Juan Macababbad, head of the NUPL in Cotabato City. Initial reports by the NUPL said Macababbad was shot and killed by two gunmen outside his home on Wednesday.

Local police have not released a motive for the killing, but the victim was a known human rights lawyer who was offering pro bono services to the poor. 

Macababbad represented indigenous groups and teachers accused by the government in the south of having links to communist insurgents, the NUPL said.

“He received death threats before his murder, purportedly due to his staunch human rights advocacy,” rights group Karapatan said.


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