A Philippine court on Thursday found three police officers guilty of killing a 17-year-old student, in the first known convictions of law-enforcement officials since President Rodrigo Duterte launched his anti-drugs campaign that has killed thousands.
In his 35-page ruling, Judge Rodolfo Azucena Jr. of the Regional Trial Court Branch 125, sentenced each of the officers – Arnel Oares, Jeremias Pereda and Jerwin Cruz – up to 40 years in prison, without parole, as he rejected their claims that the boy pulled out a pistol while resisting arrest.
“A shoot-first, think-later attitude can never be countenanced in a civilized society," Azucena said in his ruling.
Duterte’s spokesman welcomed the ruling as a triumph of justice, but rights groups noted that the president had repeatedly promised he would pardon officers found guilty while carrying out his war against narcotics.
The three Philippine National Police members appeared before the court in suburban Caloocan City, north of Manila, amid tight security.
Azucena said that while he commiserated with the police who put themselves in danger in performing their duties, he could not tolerate the violence that led to the killing of Kian Loyd delos Santos.
The use of “unnecessary force or wanton violence is not justified when the fulfillment of their duty as law enforcers can be effected otherwise," the judge said.
Witnesses had described seeing them dragging delos Santos away and finding his body near a pigsty, contradicting the official police version that the boy had provoked a fatal shootout by pulling a gun on the officers.
Following the death of delos Santos, two other teenagers were allegedly killed by police in similar circumstances, putting further pressure on Duterte’s government.
Mounting public anger subsequently forced the president to remove the police from a frontline role in the anti-drug operations. Rights groups had hailed the decision, only to see Duterte reinstating the national police in December.
Brad Adams, the director for Asia of the New York-based Human Rights Watch, hailed the landmark ruling as “the first conviction of state agents implicated in a ‘drug war’ killing.”
“This is a triumph of justice and accountability and a warning to members of the Philippine National Police to respect due process and the rights of civilians as they do their job,” Adams said in a statement.
But Adams also noted that Duterte had also promised repeatedly in the past to pardon officers convicted in the drug-war killings.
“There is reason to suspect that he will keep that promise. This is why it remains important that the government create an independent commission to investigate these killings,” he stressed.
According to police, almost 5,000 suspects have been killed in counter-narcotics operations between June 2016, when Duterte took office, and December 2017. But international and local rights groups have estimated a higher figure of about 12,000 deaths.
Two former self-confessed members of Duterte’s alleged death squad, as well as families of some of those slain in the drug war have filed mass murder complaints against Duterte at the Hague-based International Criminal Court (ICC).
In response, Duterte pulled out the Philippines from a treaty that created the ICC. He has also hit out critics of his government’s alleged rights abuses, and has cursed those who had questioned the killings.
Presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo said the convictions of the three officers showed that the Philippines has a “robust judicial system.”
“In this particular case of Kian, if you’ll recall, it was the president who ordered immediately the relief, the arrest, and the detention of the policemen involved, immediately after he viewed the video showing that obviously there was ‘salvage’ in that incident,” Panelo said, using the common term in the Philippines for summary execution.
He said it was unlikely that Duterte would pardon the officers, because he had “zero tolerance” for murder.
“We give the assurance that the president will never tolerate any intentional killing against civilians [by] men in uniform,” Panelo told reporters.
“The President will never tolerate policemen who intentionally kill, who have done it not in accordance with the performance of their duties,” he said.
Ironically, his statement came just two days after Duterte himself proposed creating a hit squad targeting members of the communist movement.
Not an isolated case
The Child Rights Network (CRN), the largest alliance of organizations and agencies pushing for children’s rights legislation in the Philippines, said delos Santos’ case was not isolated. It said 74 other children or minors have been killed in separate incidents as of December 2017.
The ruling was “an essential step in the right direction that sends a clear message that even if it is an arduous pursuit, justice can still be attained in the Philippines,” the group said.
The boy’s mother, Lorenza delos Santos, said she was relieved that the court convicted the three cops, and emphasized that it also showed that her deceased son was innocent of drug charges.
“I am very happy because this is a proof that my son is innocent,” she said, as she emerged from the jam-packed court. She expressed hope that policemen involved in similar incidents “should now be afraid” that the law can catch up with them.
Jeoffrey Maitem and Luis Liwanag from Manila contributed to this report.