A former policeman and self-admitted assassin has corroborated an earlier statement made by another self-confessed hitman that President Rodrigo Duterte created and led a “death squad” responsible for a spate of grisly murders in the southern Philippines when Duterte served previously as the mayor of Davao City.
Arturo Lascanas, 56, said in testimony that he had participated in the murders of at least 200 people as one of the leaders of the death squad, which at first only targeted small time criminals including drug dealers. He made similar claims in an interview with Asia Times this week in the national capital.
“I feel as if a big burden was lifted from my shoulders,” Lascanas said in an interview with Asia Times at an undisclosed Manila location. “Others would come forward after me to reveal the truth about the killings in Davao,” he said.
Philippine senators loyal to Duterte abruptly ended a hearing on Monday into Lascanas’ allegations, due to what they said was a lack of evidence. Government officials, meanwhile, have said Lascanas’ explosive claims lack credibility after he testified last October to a separate Senate inquiry that the death squad did not exist.
Duterte has consistently denied the existence of any death squad and any personal responsibility for extrajudicial killings.
Lascanas told Asia Times he decided to reverse that testimony and reval all because he wanted to cleanse himself of guilt, adding that his change of heart was also spurred by a debilitating liver disease and with the urgings of a Catholic priest. He said he did not want to die without letting the public know the truth.
Much of what he disclosed on Monday was already public knowledge. Last year, another man, Edgar Matobato, told a Senate inquiry that Duterte directly ordered killings in Davao, including the bombing of a Muslim mosque, the murder of a prominent broadcaster who was critical of the president, and slaying of a man both described as a dance instructor who had angered Duterte’s sister.
Both Lascanas and Matobato claimed that bodies were buried in a remote quarry and that in 2009 the Commission on Human Rights, then led by Leila de Lima, visited the area and were nearly ambushed. De Lima won a seat in the Senate last year and had become the nation’s top critic of Duterte’s drug war. Over 7,000 people have been slain in the campaign, more than half by unknown vigilantes.
De Lima was recently jailed on what are widely viewed as trumped up charges, ironically, of protecting and receiving money from jailed drug lords. The House of Representatives this week reimposed the death penalty for major drug offenses, significantly after the outspoken senator’s arrest on such charges late last month.
Over 1,400 extrajudicial killings in Davao have been documented by human rights groups during the 22 years that Duterte ruled the sprawling city. And there is fear now that he is using the same tactic in his nationwide drug war.
Lascanas said that apart from Matobato’s earlier testimony, Duterte also ordered the death squad he claims to have served to kill a drug dealer and his family, including his pregnant wife and young son, and around 10 Chinese nationals blamed for involvement in the drug trade.
Lascanas also claims that he personally signed off on the killing of his own two brothers, both admitted drug addicts, an act he said that still haunts him to this day.
All of his statements were detailed in a sworn affidavit. He said there was a possibility that other death squad members might also testify because they were afraid they would be “silenced.” “Four people, two former cops and two civilians are also now mulling over the possibility of also testifying. They are also ready to tell all, but are afraid,” he said.
Matobato gave himself up to Manila police on Thursday after coming out of hiding. He was freed on bail. His lawyer, Jude Josue Sabio, said both men have decided to file a case in the International Criminal Court in the Hague later this month. Sabio said both men believe Duterte was guilty of crimes against humanity.
“Both Matobato and Lascanas are vital witnesses to prove that the Davao Death Squad has been used as a template, a model representing a strategy or policy for crime control through the extrajudicial killings since Mr. Duterte became the president,” he told Asia Times.
Duterte’s allies have criticized both men as lacking in credibility and being part of a politicized campaign to bring down his elected government. While the Senate has halted its hearings on the allegations, even as the president has remained unusually silent, it is not clear if they would be reopened if other witnesses come forward.
Rights groups such as the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International have both carried out their own investigations and have called on Duterte to end his drug war and investigate the alleged complicity of policemen who were reportedly behind the killings.
According to HRW’s investigation, police were found to have falsified evidence to “justify unlawful killings.” It said Duterte and other senior officials have “instigated and incited killings of mostly urban poor in a campaign that could amount to crimes against humanity.”
Meanwhile, in a message issued while in detention, senator de Lima said she feared for her life despite being kept inside the police headquarters. “Each day I am here my life is at risk,” de Lima said. “I can never trust him because he is a murderer and he is capable of having me killed,” she said of Duterte.