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ICC Announces Full Inquiry on Duterte's Drug War

The International Criminal Court will investigate the killings of thousands under President Rodrigo Duterte.

by Jason Guiterrez, The New York Times

President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines has said he will never be tried by the International Criminal Court.Credit. Karl Alonzo/Presidential Photo Division, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

MANILA — A lawyer for President Rodrigo Duterte said on Thursday that International Criminal Court representatives would be denied entry to the Philippines, a day after the Hague-based tribunal authorized a full investigation into Mr. Duterte’s bloody war on drugs.

A three-judge panel at the court said on Wednesday that the antidrug campaign, which has left thousands dead, appeared to have been “a widespread and systematic attack against the civilian population.” It based that assessment on evidence presented by prosecutors, who have been carrying out a preliminary investigation since 2018.

Salvador Panelo, a lawyer for Mr. Duterte, reiterated on Thursday the president’s stance that the court had no authority to investigate him. Mr. Duterte pulled the Philippines out of the treaty that established the tribunal after it began its preliminary investigation.

“They will violate our rights if they persist with the investigation, because that would mean meddling in the domestic affairs of our country,” said Mr. Panelo, who added that the Philippine justice system was adequately dealing with any crimes committed during the drug war.

“The country will not allow anyone from the I.C.C. to come in and gather information and evidence here in the Philippines,” Mr. Panelo said. “They will be barred entry.”

The national police say their officers have killed at least 8,000 people suspected to have been drug dealers or addicts since Mr. Duterte took office in 2016, after running for president on a promise to fill Manila Bay with the bodies of narcotics traffickers.

Romeo Joel Torres Fontanilla, 37, was killed in a Manila alley by unidentified, motorcycle-riding gunmen in October 2016. Many such killings have taken place since Mr. Duterte took office. Credit. Daniel Berehulak for The New York Times

But Philippine rights groups, who welcomed the court’s announcement, say that even that number vastly understates the drug war’s true toll, and that thousands more have been slain by pro-government vigilantes.

“Many of the killings were done in police operations, but even so-called vigilante killings were part of the war on drugs,” said Llore Pasco, who became an activist after two of her sons were killed by the police in 2017. “There was no due process and no respect for human rights.”

The I.C.C. said it would also investigate killings that took place in the city of Davao when Mr. Duterte was its mayor, before he became president. He has been accused of running a death squad there that eliminated political rivals as well as suspected drug dealers and addicts. The court’s investigation will cover the period from November 2011 to March 2019, when the Philippines formally withdrew from the I.C.C. treaty.

In a statement, the court said that “based on the facts as they emerge at the present stage and subject to proper investigation and further analysis, the so-called ‘war on drugs’ campaign cannot be seen as a legitimate law enforcement operation, and the killings neither as legitimate nor as mere excesses in an otherwise legitimate operation.

“Rather, the available material indicates, to the required standard, that a widespread and systematic attack against the civilian population took place pursuant to or in furtherance of a state policy,” it said.

The funeral of Alvin Jhon Mendoza, 23, also killed by unknown gunmen in 2016.Credit. Daniel Berehulak for The New York Times

Ms. Pasco, the activist, had two sons, one 33 and the other 32, who were killed by the police in Quezon City, a Manila suburb, in May 2017. She said they had used drugs in the past, but had given them up; the police said they were part of a robbery gang, which she denies. She said the court’s announcement was “like the sun shining on us now, brightly.”

Another grieving mother turned activist, Normita Lopez, lost her 23-year-old son, Djastin Lopez, in a police shooting the same year. “Nothing is going to bring back Djastin, but we can help to make sure that no one is killed anymore,” she said.

Mr. Duterte has repeatedly said that he would never be tried by the international court. He once said that Fatou Bensouda, then a prosecutor for the tribunal, would be arrested if she came to the Philippines.

Interior Secretary Eduardo Año, who controls the national police, said on Thursday that they were prepared to assist with an I.C.C. investigation, but he added that “this is a policy matter where only the president has the authority to decide whether to allow a nonlocal inquiry or not.”

“Hence, we shall abide by the guidance of the president,” Mr. Año said.

The funeral of Alvin Jhon Mendoza, 23, also killed by unknown gunmen in 2016.Credit. Daniel Berehulak for The New York Times

Mr. Duterte’s six-year term ends next year, and under the Philippines’ Constitution he cannot run for a second. But he hopes to run for the vice presidency in conjunction with a political ally, who, if he won the presidency, would be in a position to shield Mr. Duterte from the tribunal.

Edre Olalia, president of the National Union of People’s Lawyers, which provides legal assistance to people who lost family members in the drug war, said that time was running out for Mr. Duterte, but that the killings were continuing.

On Wednesday night, even as the news from the Hague court was reaching the Philippines, a lawyer in Mr. Olalia’s organization, Juan Macababbad, was gunned down in the southern city of Cotabato by unknown people, he said.

“It was July 4, 2016, when we first publicly called out against the madness of the extrajudicial killings in the bloody drug campaign against the poor,” Mr. Olalia said. “Now the I.C.C. has opened the doors for a new beginning — it has been a long and torturous journey so far.”

“It is all worth it,” he said. “It will be worth it.”

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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