President Duterte often incited violence and ordered police to shoot dead suspects in a drug war that has killed thousands, but analysts say he is unlikely to face charges after he steps down Thursday.
Meanwhile, opposition Senator Leila M. de Lima welcomed the decision of the Office of the Prosecutor (OTP) of the International Criminal Court (ICC) to request the latter to lift the suspension on the preliminary investigation on the killings and other alleged rights abuses under the Duterte administration.
Duterte’s signature policy to rid the country of drugs has been widely condemned and sparked an international probe into a possible crime against humanity.
But the 77-year-old Chief Executive is still hugely popular among many in the Philippines who support his quick-fix solutions to crime, and he remains a potent political force.
Last month’s election results reinforced Duterte’s bulwark against potential prosecution after he leaves office, analysts said.
Ferdinand Marcos Jr., won the presidency after striking a powerful alliance with Duterte’s daughter, Sara, who was elected vice president.
Marcos has backed Duterte’s drug war and signaled his government will not cooperate with the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) investigation into the killings.
“The election basically decided that there would not be a serious investigation into President Rodrigo Duterte’s role in the drug war for the next six years,” said Greg Wyatt, director for business intelligence at PSA Philippines Consultancy.
A self-professed killer, Duterte told officers to fatally shoot narcotics suspects if their lives were at risk.
He defended the crackdown, saying it had saved families and prevented the Philippines from turning into a “narco-politics state”.
Government data show more than 6,200 people have died in police anti-drug operations since Duterte was swept to power in 2016.
Rights groups say Duterte created a climate of impunity and estimate that tens of thousands have been killed by police, hitmen and vigilantes, even without proof they were involved in drugs.
Only three policemen have been convicted for slaying a drug suspect.
Under pressure from the UN Human Rights Council and the ICC, the government has examined around 300 cases of drug operations that led to deaths.
Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra told AFP in October that a review of 52 cases had cast doubt on the officers’ common claim of self-defense.
Charges have been filed in five cases.
Lawyers representing families of victims have vowed to take legal action against Duterte in the Philippines after June 30.
But they admit the odds are stacked against them.
“We are not that hopeful, but it’s worth a shot,” said Edre Olalia, president of the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers.
Olalia said it can take years for a case to be resolved in the creaky judicial system. And lawyers struggle to gain access to evidence held by police.
A major challenge to mounting a case against Duterte will be the Ombudsman he appointed, said jailed Duterte critic and Senator Leila de Lima.
“His clout with the present Ombudsman, the only official authorized to file charges against him in relation to the EJKs (extra-judicial killings), survives even after he leaves office,” de Lima said in a statement to AFP.
The last hope for many families seeking justice is the ICC, said Carlos Conde, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch.
ICC judges authorized a full-blown investigation into the anti-narcotics campaign in September, saying it resembled an illegitimate and systematic attack on civilians.
It suspended the probe two months later, after Manila said it was looking into the alleged crimes.
Conde said the government was trying to “hoodwink” the international community, particularly the ICC.
“A lot of what they’ve been doing is just window dressing, they are just trying to buy time,” he said.
ICC prosecutor Karim Khan announced Friday that he intended to resume his probe into the drug war “as quickly as possible”, saying Manila’s request to defer the investigation was unjustified.
Duterte has refused to cooperate with The Hague-based court, claiming it has no jurisdiction.
He pulled the Philippines out of the ICC in 2019 after it launched a preliminary investigation into his drugs crackdown.
Even if the ICC gathers enough evidence to bring a case against Duterte, its rules prevent him from being tried in absentia.
“ICC, I know you’re listening, stop the drama that you’ll indict me,” Duterte said Thursday, offering to act as a lawyer for anyone in uniform who shoots dead a criminal after he leaves office.
Another option for justice was an “unofficial truth commission”, said Ruben Carranza, a senior expert at the New York-based International Center for Transitional Justice.
Carranza, who was previously involved in efforts to recover money and assets stolen by the Marcoses, said it would allow families of drug war victims to tell their stories.
“In a country like the Philippines,” he said, “I think it’s important to fight for the truth whenever it’s possible.”
De Lima, a social justice and human rights champion, said it is clear that the present government, including its Department of Justice (DOJ), has not conducted any meaningful investigation of the extra-judicial killings committed by state security forces and state agents in the course of Duterte’s murderous war on drugs.
“I welcome with great relief and optimism the decision of the Office of the Prosecutor (OTP) of the International Criminal Court (ICC) to request the latter to lift the suspension on the preliminary investigation of the Philippine situation,” she said in her Dispatch from Crame No. 1271 released yesterday.
“The OTP has seen through the ruse that the so-called DOJ investigation is, calling it a mere desk investigation that has not amounted to anything substantial to unearth the principals behind the Duterte government’s EJK policy,” she added.
The OTP filed a motion asking for the lifting of the deferment investigation into the drug war killings and those allegedly carried out by the Davao Death Squad (DDS) when Duterte was Mayor of Davao City.
“The prosecution requests the chamber to authorize the resumption of the Court’s investigation in the Situation in the Philippines, notwithstanding the deferral request,” ICC prosecutor Karim Khan said in a request to the pre-trial chamber in The Hague last June 24.
“After a careful and thorough review of all the information provided by the Philippines, as well as other information available publicly…I have concluded that the deferral requested by the Philippines is not warranted, and that the investigation should resume as quickly as possible,” Khan said.
Reportedly, ICC suspended its investigation into Duterte’s drug war in November last year at Philippines’ request, with government officials citing their own investigations into the killings.
De Lima said Duterte’s officials should have known that the ICC Prosecutor “is not and cannot be deluded,” saying the latter is sharp and incisive enough to know that the purported DOJ investigation fell short of the ICC’s standards and expectations.
“Not only does said probe cover a miniscule fraction – only 52 – of the thousands of suspected EJK cases and involving only ‘low-level’ perpetrators, there is also no showing that the very role or conduct of the ‘PNP and government leadership’ is being seriously looked into,” De Lima said.
“The ICC’s consistent investigative policy is to focus on ‘persons bearing the greatest responsibility’ for these crimes against humanity. And such a tack is not at all mirrored in the DOJ’s investigation as it has clearly spared the top perpetrators,” she added.
Additionally, De Lima also welcomed the statement of the incoming National Security Adviser, Dr. Clarita Carlos, that the Philippine government should allow the ICC investigation to be undertaken and to let a team of scholars accompany them.
“The adoption of Dr. Carlos’ position by the next administration will only demonstrate to the world that the incoming Philippine government will value human rights more than its predecessor. As she said: ‘human rights is primary’ and that ‘the first protection is the protection of the individual,’” said De Lima.
It can be recalled that De Lima was the very first to sound the alarm on EJKs being committed in the guise of Duterte’s drug war, via her privilege speeches and Proposed Senate Resolution No. 9, directing the Senate Committee on Justice and Human Rights to investigate the rampant summary executions of suspected drug offenders, which she filed last July 2016.
The lady Senator from Bicol also submitted a communication to the Office of the Special Prosecutor of the ICC last October 2017 to complement the communications submitted by the late Atty. Jude Sabio, and former lawmakers Antonio “Sonny” Trillanes IV and Gary Alejano relative to Duterte’s drug war.
This 18th Congress, De Lima reintroduced a measure, logged as Senate Bill No. 371, seeking to define and criminalize acts that constitute extrajudicial killings and ensure accountability for said crimes.