MANILA: The Philippines Justice Department on Wednesday called on witnesses to help investigate dozens of police officers suspected of criminal abuse in operations that have killed thousands of people as part of President Rodrigo Duterte’s anti-drug campaign.
Since taking office in 2016, Duterte has carried out a “war on drugs” that according to official records has led to the deaths of over 6,000 Filipinos to date. Human Rights Watch estimates the actual death toll is over 12,000, with most victims belonging to urban poor backgrounds.
The DOJ has said it is reviewing cases of deaths in anti-drug operations as “recognition of the importance of transparency.” The review follows last year’s UN Human Rights Council report that said the drug war was an “illegal, murderous state policy.”
On Wednesday, the DOJ released its initial findings in 52 cases, in which 154 police officers had been involved.
The purpose of releasing the material, it said, was “inviting any witnesses or persons with first-hand information helpful to the resolution of the 52 cases to come forward and approach the National Bureau of Investigation for the taking of their statements, if any.”
The DOJ is expected to review thousands of other cases. It remains unclear when the whole review will be completed.
“The process has no specific termination date,” Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra told Arab News. “It is a continuing process.”
When the deadly anti-drug campaign began in July 2016, Duterte openly ordered police to kill suspects if officers’ lives were endangered.
But the information released by the DOJ on the 52 cases shows that in many instances the suspects posed no real danger and did not even resist arrest or carry weapons. Many of those killed in drug operations bore multiple gunshot wounds.
One of the cases included in the review was of Nave Perry Alcantara, 17, who was killed in a “buy-bust” operation in Cagayan province in August 2018. Officers said Alcantara had fired at them, but according to an internal police investigation, the teenager was standing only one meter away from the law enforcers.
“Reading the matrix of 52 cases supposedly in relation to the drug war released by the DOJ is deja vu of the feeling I got when I read the Marcos martial law victims accounts,” Cristina Palabay Palabay, secretary-general of the human rights watchdog KARAPATAN, told Arab News.
“The public, especially the victims and their families and human rights advocates, hope that the review can be done in a more expeditious, effective, transparent, inclusive manner,” she said, adding that accountability should also extend to those who “instituted policies, incited, encouraged, drove and ordered the killings.”
National Union of Public Lawyers Secretary-General Edre Olalia said the review was indicating “progress in investigating and eventually making those responsible liable.”
However, he added that the insignificant number of cases suggests the department might lack a “proactive desire to decisively stop the carnage and the impunity.”
Last month, the International Criminal Court authorized a full investigation into the anti-drug campaign, which it said appeared to have been “a widespread and systematic attack against the civilian population” and could amount to crimes against humanity.
After previously saying ICC investigators would not be allowed in the Philippines, Duterte said this month he would prepare his defense against the court’s probe.