Thousands of police documents related to Philippine President Duterte's war on drugs were ordered to be made public on Tuesday by the Philippine top court.
Documents related to over 20,000 drug killings between July 2016 and November 2017 are to be handed over to two law firms that questioned the legality of the government's war on drugs. Human rights groups hope that the documents could reveal evidence of extrajudicial killings.
Solicitor General Jose Calida had rigorously blocked the petition to release the documents, arguing that it would pose a risk to national security.
A review of some documents, which were released to the Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG), one of the petitioners in the case, showed a "strikingly similar description of the killings" across almost all documents prepared by police. In most cases, the suspect opened fire on police first, which resulted in a gunfight and the suspect's eventual death.
"The data supports anecdotal evidence that we gathered from other sources about how cut-and-paste templates are being used in police reports," Jose Manuel Diokno, FLAG's Philippine chairperson, told a press conference on Thursday.
Diokno said that although a crackdown on narcotics was necessary, the way President Duterte's administration carried out the drug war needed to be questioned.
"The whole point of this case is to question the way it (the war on drugs) is being done. Justice is coming from the barrel of gun rather than courts," Diokno added.
Meanwhile, the government said it respects the court's order to release drug war documents.
"We will always follow the rule of law. The Supreme Court has spoken," said Salvador Panelo, a spokesperson for President Duterte.
The Center for International Law (CenterLaw), the other petitioner in the case, welcomed the top court's decision, calling it a partial but crucial triumph.
In 2017, CenterLaw filed a case against police in San Andres Bukid, an urban slum area in Manila, on behalf of the concerned residents that alleged systematic violence and excessive force by the security forces.
"These families were not even allowed to have copies of police reports that contained details about the death of their loved ones. This [the release of documents] is a small but an important victory for them," Cris Jandusay, a lawyer for CenterLaw, told DW.
On a number of occasions, President Duterte has justified his administration's war on drugs. He even encouraged police to kill drug suspects, promising to protect them from the law.
"Our policemen do not fear lawsuits. They think only the president or the former police chief would be held accountable. But once we are able to analyze the case documents and see a pattern, we will identify the individuals responsible [for extrajudicial drug deaths]," Jandusay said.
While the Supreme Court's order could be the beginning of accountability across all levels of the police force, Jandusay said the documents released to them were incomplete.
At the same time, both FLAG and CenterLaw face a huge challenge in dealing with more than 20,000 case files. "We don't know how these documents will be released to us. Will they send a truck loaded with documents? We don't know. Nonetheless, we will prepare for that," Jandusay said.
Dignity for the dead
Sister Nenet Dano is one of the nuns involved in collecting testimonies from families and witnesses from the San Andres Bukid area. Dano also helped CenterLaw put together the Supreme Court petition.
Dano told DW that the Supreme Court's decision offered hope to the victims' families. "The killings now have a face. Previously, the killings were just statistics. But these are real people with real families," she said.
"Now the victims' families can see that irrespective of what was said about their loved ones, they still deserve dignity," said Dano.
According to the nun, many families whose loved ones have been killed in Duterte's bloody drug war are planning to seek justice. The court's ruling, she adds, has given courage to more families to do the same.
"We will continue our work with our community trainings on basic human rights so that the people will know what rights are promised to them by the country's law and how they can protect themselves. And as always, we will continue to pray," said Dano.