As Manila rolls out the red carpet as host of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) summit meeting, a pall hangs over the diplomatic proceedings.
As Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte bids to leverage the high-level meeting to showcase his country’s recent successes, including a fast-growing economy, a pending complaint filed against him and 11 officials at The Hague’s International Criminal Court (ICC) on charges of crimes against humanity for his past and current drug wars has provided a powerful counter-narrative.
In a 77-page complaint filed on April 24, Filipino lawyer Jude Sabio accused Duterte of “repeatedly, unchangingly and continuously” committing mass murder and crimes against humanity through extrajudicial killings allegedly conducted by the so-called “Davao death squad” beginning in the 1990s and practices by police and other allegedly aligned vigilante groups as part of his current anti-drug campaign.
Sabio asked the ICC’s Prosecutor’s Office to issue a warrant of arrest against Duterte and 11 of his officials, including Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre, House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez, Solicitor General Jose Calida, Senator Richard Gordon and Senator Alan Peter Cayetano, among others.
It is unclear, but seems unlikely for now, that the request will be honored.
Sabio cited findings of international rights groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, Duterte’s own public pronouncements, media reports, testimony from Sabio’s client, Edgar Matobato, a self-confessed member of the notorious death squad, and Arturo Lascanas, another self-admitted former police killer who has alleged to have led the death squad, as evidence for the complaint.
Duterte has consistently denied any state involvement in illegal killings, many of which have been carried out by shadowy vigilante groups. On Thursday, as with past accusations of state-sponsored killings related to his anti-crime and drug campaigns, he shrugged off the ICC complaint in folksy fashion.
“Let them be. There’s nothing I can do. Nobody can stop from filing [against] you … If I go to prison, then so be it,” he told local media. “I can even invent one and go to the fiscal’s office now and accuse you for entering into three marriages.”
Presidential spokesperson Ernesto Abella had said earlier the ICC complaint, first broached in March after Congress shut down witness testimony, was strategically timed by his opponents to coincide with Asean summit to embarrass Duterte and that the complaint had “no basis for prospering.”
“It would really be deeply disappointing if they [ICC] took the word of an admitted murderer as the basis for action against the head of state,” he said in referring to Matobato.
Duterte won last year’s election on a law-and-order platform, specifically on a strategy to stop the illegal drug trade through use of force. Describing his “best practice” in eradicating crime in Davao City, the southern Philippine city where Duterte was mayor in the 1980s and 1990s, was to kill criminals, Duterte garnered 16 million votes and swept the poll.
In his stump speeches, Duterte warned drug users and peddlers to mend their ways or he will fill Manila Bay with their corpses. The body count started escalating as soon as Duterte assumed office, with at least 7,000 either shot dead while allegedly resisting arrest or executed by masked vigilantes since he launched the campaign.
In an ironic twist, The New York Times in an expose report revealed that Duterte has frequently used prescription pain-killers to deal with a back injury he endured in a motorcycle accident. Duterte has denied he currently or ever habitually uses the drugs.
Duterte’s allies have already hinted at their defense strategy, including threats to disbar Sabio for lodging the complaint based on “hearsays and unfounded suspicions.” Spokesman Abella has claimed the complaint is part of a wider “destabilization” campaign to bring down the government.
Senator Panfilo Lacson, a Duterte ally described witnesses Matobato and Lascanas, whose earlier testimonies are among the basis for the complaint, as “being both polluted sources and perjured witnesses at that” and thus the ICC complaint “as without merit.” He said the crimes against humanity complaint was “dustbin-bound.”
While consistently criticized by local and international rights groups, Duterte’s lethal campaign has remained popular among average Filipinos weary of high crime rates, according to local opinion surveys.
Local media that have reported critically on the drug war have often been bombarded by angry and at times threatening anonymous comments on comment boards and social media that has raised questions about official complicity in the pro-government responses.
But certain traditional voices of moral authority are starting to speak out, including in the influential Catholic Church.
“Filing a complaint at the ICC is a good move for the whole world to know that crimes against humanity, seemingly sanctioned by the government, are being committed in this Christian country,” said Bishop Arturo Bastes.
“It is our hope that this move will inject fear into the hearts and minds of the accused officials so that they will eventually and sincerely put a stop to these merciless killings.”
So could the case prosper in court? Established in 2002, the ICC handles cases of crimes against humanity, genocide and war crimes against leaders of countries that have signed the Rome Statue, which the Philippines signed in 2011 under the previous Benigno Aquino administration.
The ICC, however, acts as a court of last resort, taking on cases on condition that the country in question’s judicial system is unable or unwilling to prosecute. That case could be made for the Philippines, which has one of the highest impunity rates in unresolved murder cases in the world, according to international surveys.
The ICC has only delivered six verdicts, mostly of African leaders, among thousands of complaints filed in recent years. Duterte’s government has already indicated it plans to put up a tenacious legal fight, a strategy often used by official defendants in the Philippines’ legal system to prolong proceedings that often breaks the banks and wills of citizen complainants.
But the complaint has already served to internationalize Duterte’s drug war and could potentially put him in an uncomfortable court room setting, far outside of his country’s pliable judicial system and cut-throat partisan politics.