Updated at 11:31 a.m. ET on 2018-08-28
A rights group and relatives of eight victims killed in President Rodrigo Duterte's unrelenting drug war filed a murder case Tuesday against the Philippine leader at the International Criminal Court (ICC), in the second such petition alleging thousands had been killed in the anti-narcotics campaign, their lawyer said.
The new complaint asked ICC chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda to make Duterte accountable “for his crimes against humanity committed through acts of murder for extrajudicial killings of thousands of Filipinos,” said Neri Colmenares, head of the National Union of People’s Lawyers (NUPL).
The group said they chose to file the case before the ICC because they would not be able to see justice in the Philippines, after Duterte orchestrated the ouster in May of Supreme Court Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno to favor her arch-rival, Teresita de Castro.
Duterte’s drug war has left about 4,410 suspected drug dealers and addicts dead in police operations since he assumed office in 2016, according to latest figures released last week by the national police.
The figure is on top of the estimated 4,800 others that are considered “deaths under investigation” – including those blamed on unidentified vigilantes who typically leave messages on cardboards placed near the bodies of their victims warning others to avoid drugs or end up dead.
Rights groups, including the Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have placed the death toll at 12,000 or higher, largely because many deaths, especially in slum areas, sometimes go unreported.
Rubylin Litao, of the group Rise Up for Life and for Rights, which is also one of the complainants, said many of the victims’ families had already lost confidence that their cases would prosper in the local court system now headed by Duterte’s allies.
“These killings must be stopped and justice must be served, not only for the individual families but for all of us as a people,” Litao said. “The poor have been striving hard to get out of poverty but the president’s answer buried them instead, literally and figuratively, to greater woes.”
Reacting to the news, presidential spokesman Harry Roque belittled the latest development, saying that Manila had already opted out of the Rome Statute that created the ICC as early as March.
“My fearless prediction is, it will not prosper because of the concept of complementarity. The ICC must not act unless local courts have proven to be unable or unwilling to exercise jurisdiction on these complaints,” Roque said.
The ICC could not be immediately reached for comment.
The ICC is currently investigating a 77-page complaint filed last year by Edgar Matobato, Duterte’s self-proclaimed hitman, and Arturo Lascanas, a former police officer who claimed to have committed murder under the direction of the president when he was still a mayor of the southern city of Davao.
That complaint, filed in April 2017, includes “crimes against humanity through mass murder” allegedly committed by Duterte and his death squad. Duterte has denied the allegations and the group’s existence.
The case is still with the ICC, and Duterte in March accused the body of trying to paint him as a “heartless violator of human rights.” He later withdrew from the treaty that created the court.
He had claimed that the acts he has been charged with were neither a crime of aggression nor a crime against humanity. “The deaths occurring in the process of legitimate police operation lacked the intent to kill,” Duterte, a prosecutor before becoming a politician, said then.
He subsequently warned Bensouda from ever going to the Philippines because the ICC “never had jurisdiction over my person, not in a million years” and accused his opponents of using the ICC as a political tool against him.
“You cannot exercise any proceedings here without basis. That is illegal, and I will arrest you,” Duterte said then.
The ICC has said that it would not stop a preliminary examination it was conducting into the Philippines. While the Philippines was well within its rights to pull out of the Rome Statute, an international treaty that gave birth to the ICC, its withdrawal would only take effect a year after notifying the United Nation’s secretary general.
Karl Romano from Dagupan City contributed to this report.An earlier version incorrectly included Marawi in the dateline.