Philippines: 7 Former Cops Face Murder Charges Tied to Drug War

Marielle Lucenio
Manila
2021-09-01
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Philippines: 7 Former Cops Face Murder Charges Tied to Drug War A woman holds a photograph of Angelito Soriano, 16, who was killed in a police operation in December 2016, during a protest rally in Quezon City, Philippines, July 26, 2021.
Jason Gutierrez/BenarNews

Philippine prosecutors have asked a court to file arrest warrants on murder charges against seven police officers suspected of killing six people last year during a “fabricated” operation that used President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs as cover, officials said. 

The Philippine Department of Justice said it charged the seven police officers, who were relieved of duty in June, with six counts of murder and six counts of arbitrary detention last week over the killings that followed a raid in Bulacan province north of Manila in early 2020.

“The filing of the charges arose from three fabricated buy-bust operations conducted by the said police officers … against the victims, but in truth and in fact, no buy-bust operation was ever conducted against them,” the DOJ said in a statement on Tuesday.

During buy-bust operations, undercover officers will buy drugs from suspects and then arrest them.

“The DOJ panel resolved that the unsuspecting victims were taken because they happened to pass by the area where a buy-bust operation took place,” it said, identifying the six as Chamberlain Domingo, Chadwin Santos, Edmar Aspirin, Richard Salgado, Erwin Mergal and Jim Joshua Cordero.

A human rights advocacy group described the announcement by the justice department as a “premature and self-serving” move by the Duterte administration to “spin” the news of the murder charges against the seven ex-officers as the Philippine government faces the prospect of an investigation by the International Criminal Court into its war on illegal drugs.

In their statement, justice officials alleged that the police officers “unlawfully and forcibly” arrested the six victims who were passing by a drug suspect’s house in Bulacan as police conducted a sting operation on Feb. 13, 2020.

DOJ investigators alleged that the victims were blindfolded and tied while being held inside a police station, but they were later taken to different places and killed. The officers had claimed that the six were drug suspects killed after resisting arrest, justice officials said. 

The officers allegedly fabricated evidence to make it appear that anti-drug operations occurred on Feb. 14, 15 and 18, 2020, the department said.

“Further discussions and evaluation took place when the draft of the resolution from the panel was submitted to the task force head in November 2020. The final resolution was then forwarded to the Prosecutor General in the first week of August,” said Undersecretary Emmeline Aglipay-Villar, spokeswoman for the justice department.

The seven implicated cops were identified as Staff Sgt. Benjie Enconado, Staff Sgt. Irwin Joy Yuson, Cpl. Marlon Martus, Cpl. Edmund Catubay Jr., Cpl. Harvy Albino, Cpl. Herbert Hernandez, and patrolman Rusco Virnar Madla.

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Police examine the body of an alleged drug dealer who was found dead near Central Post Office in Manila, June 27, 2017. [Basilio Sepe/BenarNews]

A Philippines-based researcher for Human Rights Watch reacted to the announcement with pessimism.

“For every good news like this, thousands of other cases of extrajudicial killings are uninvestigated or languishing in the Philippines’ broken justice system,” Carlos Conde said via Twitter.

“This spin betrays the government’s cynical attempt to mislead the international community,” he said. 

Opposition Sen. Leila de Lima, who has been in jail since February 2017 for what she claims are trumped up drug-related charges, said the case shows how errant police have abused many in the name of Duterte’s drug war.  

She said victims’ families support the ICC’s potential move to investigate Duterte.

“This is a step closer to achieving the justice that they deserve,” she said in a Senate press release on Tuesday. “This also brings hope to all the families of the victims of Duterte’s drug war, that the ICC is working and that it is their best hope for justice.”

The filing of charges against the seven officers came after Fatou Bensouda, the then-top prosecutor of The Hague-based ICC, announced in June that she was seeking an investigation into allegations that crimes against humanity took place under Duterte’s drug war. Bensouda’s term as prosecutor ended the next day.

Meanwhile, Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra defended Duterte.

“Even though he’s waging this campaign against illegal drugs and many have died because of this campaign, it doesn’t really mean that he’s disrespecting human rights,” Guevarra told reporters. 

“As a matter of fact, this review panel that was constituted and headed by the Department of Justice is doing a lot to ensure that those who must be held accountable for deaths arising from illegal drug operations are brought before the bar of justice,” Guevarra said. 

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One of the three Philippine officers convicted of killing Kian Lloyd delos Santos, 17, is escorted by police outside the Regional Trial Court in suburban Caloocan City, Nov. 29, 2018. [Karl Romano/BenarNews]

Duterte has repeatedly called on police to shoot and kill drug suspects if the officers’ lives were in danger or if the drug suspects put up a fight.

Rights groups and observers have said this has emboldened officers into carrying out operations with brutality and abuse of power.

In November 2018, three police officers were convicted of murder for killing Kian Loyd delos Santos, 17, in August 2017. Closed-circuit TV footage showed the boy as he was being taken away by the officers before being shot and killed near a pigsty, contrary to the officers’ claim that he pulled a gun. 

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

 Jeoffrey Maitem contributed to this report from Cotabato City, Philippines.

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