MANILA (Reuters) – A former militiaman testified to a Philippine senate hearing on Thursday that President Rodrigo Duterte had personally given assassination orders while he was the mayor of a southern city in which activists say hundreds of summary executions took place.
Speaking during a legislative investigation into Duterte’s ongoing anti-crime crackdown, Edgar Matobato, a self-confessed hit-man, told senators he personally heard then Davao city mayor Duterte give instructions to carry out extrajudicial killings.
“Our job was to kill criminals like drug pushers, rapists, snatchers,” said the 57-year-old, who said he himself had killed more than 50 people while working for a “Davao Death Squad”.
“They were killed like chickens,” he told the televised hearing, during which he alleged that the president’s eldest son and current Davao vice mayor, Paolo Duterte, was a drug user who ordered the death of a hotel owner in 2014.
Rodrigo Duterte has frequently denied involvement in any vigilantism as both mayor and president. In a public speech on Thursday afternoon, he made no mention of the senate hearing.
Rights groups have documented some 1,400 suspicious killings in Davao since the early 1990s and critics say the bloody war on drugs Duterte has unleashed since taking office on June 30 bears the same hallmarks.
More than 3,500 people, or about 47 per day, have been killed in the past 10 weeks, some 58% by unknown assailants and the rest in legitimate police operations, according to police.
Matobato said that, during the 1990s, he overheard Rodrigo Duterte order the bombing of mosques in Davao as retaliation for the attack on a cathedral.
“He ordered us to kill Muslims,” Matobato said.
Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre described Matobato’s testimony as “lies, fabrications and a product of a fertile and a coached imagination”.
Matobato told the hearing that one man was fed to a crocodile and most victims were cut into pieces and buried in a mass grave at a quarry.
He said others were thrown into the sea, their stomachs slashed to prevent bodies floating to the surface, he said.
Presidential Communications Secretary Martin Andanar said he did not believe Rodrigo Duterte was capable of ordering the killings and investigations had proved him innocent.
Though the existence of Davao death squads has never actually been proven, the term is familiar in the Philippines and is part of the narrative behind Duterte’s meteoric rise to the presidency as a no-nonsense crime buster determined to cure the country’s ills.
The United Nations and United States have expressed concern about his latest crackdown, and received profane and angry rebukes from Duterte, who has told them not to interfere.
Paolo Duterte issued a statement pouring water on Matobato’s testimony, which he said was “all based on hearsays”.
Little is known about Matobato, who volunteered to give testimony in a senate investigation led by Leila de Lima, a former justice minister who has denounced Duterte’s crackdown.
De Lima has yet to say why she did not seek to prosecute Duterte over the Davao killings when she was justice minister in the previous administration, when Matobato first came to her for protection.
Matobato told the hearing he once served as a paramilitary who fought Maoist rebels and decided to tell all that he knew about the Davao death squad after being made a “fall guy” in the killing of a Davao businessman.
(Reporting By Manuel Mogato; Editing by Martin Petty, Robert Birsel)