The Philippine police chief who spearheaded President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs that has left thousands dead stepped down on Thursday amid calls for accountability from human rights groups.
Director General Ronald Dela Rosa, Duterte’s most-loyal police aide, retired and was replaced by Oscar Albayalde, formerly in charge of police operations in metropolitan Manila, where a majority of the more than 4,000 drug-related killings have taken place.
In his acceptance speech, Albayalde praised Dela Rosa’s “remarkable accomplishments” and vowed to carry on with the anti-drug campaign.
“We will not relent on our war against illegal drugs and other forms of criminality. The drug menace, we must all understand, is a worldwide phenomenon,” Albayalde said.
“We will help and support each other to fight and win this war.”
The nation’s new police chief commended his predecessor for the arrests of thousands of drug personalities and credited dela Rosa for “neutralizing” drug suspects – a term that means defeating or killing them.
In Metro Manila, Albayalde was replaced by Camilo Cascolan, a police commander who had rolled out “Double Barrel” – a controversial project and key feature of the drug war that includes a system known in the Philippines as “Tokhang.”
Tokhang is a combination of two Filipino words that mean “to knock and plead,” where policemen knock on a suspected drug addict’s home and convince him to undergo rehabilitation. It may have been well-intentioned, but the term has become synonymous with killing because suspects almost always end up dead, rights groups say.
Dela Rosa, whom Duterte said would head the Bureau of Corrections after retiring from the police force, is leaving behind a law-enforcement agency with a tarnished human rights record. This included the killing of a South Korean national arrested on a false drug charge that almost derailed the anti-drug campaign.
In the face of criticism, Dela Rosa expressed his unshakable loyalty to Duterte, who recently cut ties with the International Criminal Court (ICC) after The Hague-based body said it was launching a preliminary examination into complaints about numerous deaths connected to the drug war.
Dela Rosa should be held accountable over the thousands of deaths under his watch as police chief, said Carlos Conde, the Philippine researcher of the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW).
“As police chief, Dela Rosa deployed the forces that have waged President Rodrigo Duterte’s murderous ‘war on drugs,’” Conde said in a statement issued Wednesday. “That campaign has targeted mainly urban slum dwellers and resulted in the deaths of more than 12,000 men, women and children by police and police-backed vigilantes.”
He said Dela Rosa was an “enthusiastic supporter” of the deadly campaign.
But Duterte, who witnessed the change of command at the headquarters of police in Manila, said the drug war would continue until his last day in office in 2022.
“How could I face the people if the drugs are being sold everywhere? It cannot happen,” Duterte said.
He told the policemen he would “protect and defend” them in case they killed drug couriers or addicts in the course of doing their jobs.
Conde said the death toll cited by police reflected a lower toll than the actual figures that rights groups have monitored.
HRW research found that many of the killings had been “summary executions” in which police or their agents allegedly planted weapons and drugs on bodies and then claimed the victims had “fought back.” No one has been held to account for these killings, Conde said.
The ICC’s preliminary proceedings were based on a complaint by two former police officers who claimed they were members of Duterte’s “Davao Death Squad,” a vigilante group allegedly responsible for dozens of summary executions carried out when the president was mayor of the southern city of Davao. The duo claimed that Duterte took the strategy nationwide when he became president.
Saying the court had no “jurisdiction even to conduct a preliminary investigation,” Duterte warned the ICC against continuing with its probe and threatened to arrest its lead prosecutor if she visited Manila.
“These developments suggest that sooner or later, Dela Rosa may be held to account for the bloody campaign he so zealously endorsed,” Conde said.
But Dela Rosa, reacting to Conde’s statement’s, urged HRW to file a case against him and prove its allegation of police abuses.
“They should stop making noise, he said. “If they have the evidence and they have the case, file the case.”