President Rodrigo Duterte’s son, Paolo Duterte, faces the Senate and denies allegations that he is involved in drug smuggling. The case captivates the nation in the midst of a brutal war on drugs. Ana P. Santos reports.
Paolo Duterte faced a Senate inquiry on Thursday where he was grilled by opposition senators about accusations that he was involved in smuggling about $125 million (€104 million) worth of methamphetamine (locally known as "shabu") into the country.
Senator Antonio Trillanes, a fierce critic of President Rodrigo Duterte's administration, led the inquiry that was triggered after customs broker Mark Taguba said in August that Duterte's eldest son, Paolo, was connected to a group that accepted millions in bribes to move shipments of illegal drugs into the country.
Also implicated was Manases Carpio, who is married to President Duterte's daughter, Sara, who took over as Davao City mayor after her father won the presidency. Paolo Duterte is currently serving as vice mayor of Davao.
Trillanes questioned the two men about the hundreds of millions supposedly in their bank accounts and asked them to sign bank secrecy waivers so their bank transactions could be studied. Both men denied having such bank accounts and refused to sign bank secrecy waivers.
Paolo Duterte dismissed the allegations as "baseless." During the hearing, he often refused to answer questions thrown at him saying that they were "irrelevant."
Paolo Duterte (L) and Manases Carpio (R) were grilled by opposition senators led by Antonio Trillanes in the Philippine Senate on Thursday
Rainier Madrid, legal counsel for Paolo Duterte, dismissed Trillanes' statements as "pure propaganda based on gossip and innuendo." Madrid accused Trillanes of using Paolo to destroy President Duterte and compared him to Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels.
This is not the first time Duterte's son was linked to drugs. Government documentation that go back as early as 2007 identified Paolo Duterte as a major "drug protector" in their hometown of Davao.
The dragon tattoo
But it was a tattoo that the vice mayor of Davao supposedly had that proved to be the real controversy during the hearing.
Trillanes accused Paolo Duterte of being part of an international criminal syndicate, saying that a tattoo on Paolo's back would prove it. The opposition senator alleged that he had received intelligence that a dragon-like image with secret digits was tattooed on Paolo Duterte's back.
The tattoo is the mark of the members of the Chinese triad, said Trillanes. The triad is a transnational criminal organization based in China, Singapore, Taiwan, and other countries that have substantial Chinese populations. The crime group has been linked to human trafficking and arms dealing.
Paolo Duterte admitted he had a tattoo but refused to describe it, invoking his right to privacy. The president's son grew indignant when Trillanes suggested that he show it to the committee.
According to a US Congress report, triads in the Philippines are mostly involved in money laundering, arms dealing and illegal drugs.
"His refusal to show his tattoo basically confirmed my allegation that he is a member of the triad. Same with the refusal to sign the bank waiver, it showed that he is hiding his millions. If my allegations were not true, he could have grabbed the opportunity to humiliate me," Trillanes told DW.
Trillanes is exploring the possibility of compelling the two men to sign a bank secrecy waiver and present their bank statements to the Ombudsman for investigation. Presidential Spokesperson Ernesto Abella said that Trillanes' charges "were pretty drastic."
"Those are very serious allegations. He needs to have some pretty substantial evidence to support that statement," Abella said.
Violent drug war
President Duterte's aggressive crackdown on illegal drugs has claimed the lives of thousands of mostly poor young men since he assumed the presidency last year.
Addressing allegations made against his son, Duterte said he would readily resign the presidency if it were proven that his son had drug links.
Others who provide support for the families that suffered extrajudicial killings could not help but see the irony and injustice highlighted by today's hearings.
Read more: Muted outrage over Philippine drug killings
Father Joselito "Bong" Sarabia, a priest who is part of Rise Up, a group of families left behind, laments that the younger Duterte was able to uphold his right to defend himself against drug allegations unlike the thousands of mostly poor young men who were executed on mere suspicion.
"He is a lucky guy to be welcomed in the Senate and defended by (senators) Sotto and Gordon. He could have erased doubts regarding his role in drug smuggling if he had signed the bank secrecy waiver and showed his tattoo. Many are thought to be addicts and killed just because they have tattoos on their bodies," Father Bong Sarabia told DW.