The International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague has notified the Philippines about a preliminary investigation into the killings of thousands of people during President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on illegal drugs, his spokesman said Thursday.
The investigation is to determine if there is enough evidence to build a case against Duterte, who has been accused by a former police aide and a self-described assassin of ordering the deaths of criminals and political foes when he was a long-time mayor of Davao.
Duterte denied the allegations, but has acknowledged deaths of criminals during his term as mayor of the southern city. Two years ago, 16 million Filipinos voted him into office as president after he pledged a swift crackdown on drug traffickers and dealers.
“Our mission in The Hague was informed that the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court is opening a preliminary examination on the alleged acts associated with the campaign against illegal drugs covering the period of July 2016,” presidential spokesman Harry Roque told reporters in Manila.
He said the government was unfazed, stressing that the war on drugs was a “legitimate police operation.”
“It is a lawful use of force and therefore, we submit likewise on the merits the element of directing an attack against civilian populations is simply lacking,” Roque said.
The announcement from The Hague came days after national police said nearly 50 suspected drug addicts and pushers had been killed since December.
These killings bring the official police figure to more than 4,000, a figure much lower than the estimated 12,000 deaths reported by rights groups and the politically influential Catholic church. The official figure does not include many deaths attributed to pro-government vigilantes, who often place card board signs proclaiming their victims were drug couriers or pushers.
Last year, Duterte removed police from the lead role in the drug war after three teenagers were gunned down. The official police versions declared the teenagers were drug couriers who were killed because they had fought it out with arresting officers.
But in one case, the police were seen in a neighborhood closed-circuit television camera taking a subdued teenager away before he was killed. That incident caused widespread public anger and galvanized opposition to Duterte’s drug war.
Lawyers, activists welcome the ICC probe
Sen. Antonio Trillanes welcomed the ICC decision on Thursday. Duterte’s outspoken political nemesis, Trillanes steadfastly backed the witnesses against the president and helped them file their complaint.
“This development should jolt Duterte into realizing that he is not above the law,” Trillanes said. “More importantly, this is the first step for the victims’ families’ quest for justice.”
Jude Josue Sabio, a lawyer representing the complainants, said he was elated and felt vindicated.
“At last, Duterte and his cohorts will face preliminary examination by the ICC prosecutor as a prelude to a formal criminal investigation,” Sabio said. “I am confident we will hurdle this big step and hopefully a warrant of arrest will be issued by the ICC against Duterte.”
Sabio said his 77-page complaint, filed in April 2017, includes “crimes against humanity through mass murder” allegedly committed by Duterte when he was mayor of Davao, an act that he carried over to the national stage when he became president.
“The theory of the case is that Duterte is the author of the system of the death squad killings in the Davao Death Squad when he was mayor and he continued this system when he became president,” he said.
Cristina Palabay, whose group Karapatan has been following the killings, said she hoped the ICC investigation was the first step toward establishing accountability for the deaths.
The independent investigation should be conducted in light of Duterte’s stubborn refusal to be subjected to international scrutiny, she said.
Roque, on the other hand, said that the ICC action was merely a preliminary investigation and the prosecutor was “exercising his mandate to determine whether there is reasonable basis proceed.”
“So I repeat, no one should claim a victory because they are only on the stage of preliminary investigation,” he said.
Roque: ‘waste of time’
Roque said he met with Duterte on Wednesday night to brief him on the ICC case and that the president welcomed the development. “He is sick and tired of being accused of the commission of crimes against humanity,” Roque said.
“We view, of course, this decision of the prosecutor as a waste of the court’s time and resources,” he said.
Meanwhile, Loretta Anne Rosales, Manila’s former human rights commissioner, said the ICC’s move was an important step in boosting the rule of law.
“The case raises transcendental legal and policy issues, and it is our duty as stakeholders to examine these issues with close and critical scrutiny,” she said, stressing the filing was just the start of a “long and rigorous process.”
Felipe Villamor in Manila contributed to this report.