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Philippine police conducted vigilante killings, Human Rights Watch says

As bodies pile up on the country's poorest streets, so does the evidence implicating the Philippine National Police (PNP) and President Rodrigo Duterte in the extrajudicial killings. Ana P. Santos reports from Manila.

International watchdog Human Rights Watch (HRW) today released a report showing the Philippine National Police (PNP) are responsible for the vigilante-style killings of drug suspects. The police also resorted to falsifying reports and planting evidence to justify the government's brutal drug war, the investigative document said.

Rodrigo Duterte's core campaign promise to crackdown on illegal drugs pushed him to his presidential election victory last July 1. Since then,there have been more than 7,000 deaths due to drug-related killings. The PNP has always carefully divided these into "legitimate police operations,” such as buy-bust operations, and "vigilante style killings” carried out by unknown assassins.

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Duterte's 'war on drugs' in the Philippines

However, the HRW report "found no such distinction” between extrajudicial killings and deaths as a result of police operations.

"It's clear that the role of Duterte and some of his senior government ministers implicate him in instigation of police personnel to commit extrajudicial killings and incitement of members of the public to do likewise,” Phelim Kine, HRW deputy director for Asia, told DW.

Systematic killings in the country's poorest areas

The report investigated 24 incidents involving alleged drug dealers and users that resulted in 32 victims. Witness interviews with the victims' family members and neighbors revealed planned and systematic killings of drug suspects in some of the country's most impoverished communities.

"Assailants typically worked in groups of two, four, or a dozen. They would wear civilian clothes, often all black, and shielded their faces with balaclava-style headgear or other masks, and baseball caps or helmets. They would carry handguns. They would frequently travel by motorcycle—two to a bike,” the report detailed.

Philippinen Rodrigo Duterte (Reuters/E. Acayan)

Kine accuses President Duterte of direct involvement in vigilante killings

Additionally, local residents claimed that before shootings, uniformed police would be seen roaming in the vicinity, presumably to secure the perimeter.

"There is no evidence that Duterte has ordered the killings of any specific individuals, but the principle of command responsibility means that he is culpable for his role as an enthusiastic cheerleader for state-sanctioned slaughter,” Kine said.

"What's required is for the United Nations to form an independent investigation of the thousands of killings linked to Duterte's "War on Drugs.” That investigation may well uncover compelling evidence that links Duterte to crimes against humanity,” he added.

A 70-page, tell-all journal on death squads

The HRW report comes on the heels of a report by Amnesty International in Februarythat exposed "an economy of murder” where police are paid as much as $300 for each drug suspect killed.

But perhaps the most damning piece of evidence to come to light is the admission of retired senior Davao police officer Arturo Lascanas. He confirmed the existence of a vigilante group that Duterte organized and funded when he was mayor of Davao City in the southern Philippines, as well as his direct involvement in the Davao Death Squad (DDS).

"Here ends my blind obedience and loyalty to one person, Mayor Rodrigo Roa Duterte, who is now president of our country,” Lascanas said in a press conference late February. At one point, the 57-year-old broke down and confessed that he had ordered the killing of his two brothers because they were involved in the illegal drug trade.

Lascanas claimed the DDS started out killing petty offenders and drug pushers before expanding to target political rivals and outspoken critics, including a broadcast journalist who frequently used his radio program to lambast Duterte.

A report by the Philippine Center of Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) revealed that in 2015, Lascanas began documenting DDS activities. In his now 70-page-long handwritten journal, he detailed the death squad's bloody exploits and made an ominous prediction.

"If ever [Duterte] will win the presidency and apply in the whole country his Davao formula of bloodletting on the premise of peace and order and illegal drugs, eventually he will lead this country (to) hell, and deceptively perpetuate himself to lifetime in power,” wrote Lascanas.

Lascanas' admission is a direct turnaround from September last year when he adamantly denied the existence of the DDS, dismissing it as "media hype.” It also corroborates the earlier testimony of Edgar Matobato, a self-confessed assassin who came forward in a Senate panel in September 2016 and narrated his role as a foot soldier in the DDS killings.

Philippinen Manila Proteste Duterte (Getty Images/AFP/N. Celis)

Activists march against the war on drugs

A call to international action

Senator Antonio Trillanes, who has emerged as one of the fiercest critics of  the Duterte Administration, believes Lascanas' statements and writings undeniably demonstrate Duterte's top-down involvement in the extrajudicial drug-related deaths.

"As to Lascanas' testimony, having dealt numerous times with President Duterte himself, this would directly implicate Duterte in numerous cases of murder, contract killings and assassinations. It also shows that Duterte used the DDS operations as a template for his war on drugs,” Trillanes added.

The senator also called for broader international steps to be taken against the Philippine's president.

"It is high time that the International Criminal Court (ICC) steps in to stop this carnage perpetrated by President Duterte and make him accountable for his actions,” Trillanes told DW via phone.

After rogue officers were found responsible for the kidnapping and death of a South Korean businessman, Duterte temporarily suspended the PNP in January 2017 from taking part in drug operations.

However, police resumed drug operations on February 28 on Duterte's orders after reports that drug dealers had returned to the streets. The body count may once more begin to rise. 

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