Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte after being briefed on Typhoon Mangkhut's damage causedto the Philippines, September 18, 2018. Photo: AFP/Noel Celis
Rodrigo Duterte inherited a reasonably strong economy. Photo: AFP/Noel Celis

The International People’s Tribunal (IPT) handed down a symbolic guilty verdict in Brussels against Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte for gross human rights abuses, adding to the rising chorus for the populist leader to be referred to the International Criminal Court at The Hague for his various scorched earth policies.

The verdict, which covered Duterte’s deadly war on drugs that has killed thousands of mostly poor Filipino drug suspects as well as his heavy-handed implementation of martial law over the country’s southern island of Mindanao, was handed down after marathon hearings on September 18 to 19, where 31 people testified against Duterte.

The IPT was convened by the European Association of Lawyers for Democracy and World Human Rights (ELDH), Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers, International Association of Democratic Lawyers (IADL), Ibon International and the International Coalition for Human Rights in the Philippines (ICHRP).

The IPT’s verdict will be submitted to the ICC, the European Parliament and the United Nations Human Rights Council, according to Voice of the Bangsamoro chairperson Jerome Succor Aba, who also testified during the IPT hearing. The complaint, which was not a strictly judicial proceeding, sought to draw international attention to Duterte’s abuses.

The mercurial leader earlier slammed the IPT as a “sham” tribunal and did not send any legal representative to the hearing. The IPT concluded that Duterte violated 26 international instruments, principles, and standards embodied in but not limited to the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The ICC is conducting a preliminary probe into his lethal drug war to determine if it has jurisdiction over the case after receiving two complaints from Filipino plaintiffs.

The Philippine leader has responded by withdrawing the Philippines from the ICC’s enabling Rome Statute. In March this year Duterte said the ICC is part of the “white idiots in the EU” and threatened to feed any ICC investigators who enter the Philippines to the “crocodiles.”

The ICC’s article 127, however, does not recognize withdrawal of any state until after one year from the notice of withdrawal, which was made this year in March. This rule is intended precisely to preempt abusive rulers from self-servingly withdrawing from the ICC if a complaint is filed against them.

Duterte earlier this month tried to arrest Senator Antonio Trillanes, an opposition politician involved in filing a complaint against Duterte at the ICC, without an arrest warrant. Former Justice Secretary Leila De Lima, another staunch critic of the drug war, was arrested and remains behind bars on what are widely viewed as spurious drug charges.

Police officers investigate the dead body of an alleged drug dealer, his face covered with packing tape in Manila, in a 2016 file photo. Photo: AFP/Noel Celis

Testimonies to the IPT from victims, witnesses, and experts presented their case before the IPT along with documentary evidence including photos, videos, special reports, expert analyses and summaries.

“The consistency and robustness of the testimonies has unanimously appeared to us as to be so compelling to justify the deliberation of a clear verdict on the main responsibilities of the main defendants,” the tribunal ruled.

Philippine television network ABS-CBN reported that Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque described the ruling as a “sham decision” that has “no official sanction.”

“The validity of the findings will depend on the validity of the tribunal,” Roque said. “They appear to be a propaganda body of the international left and, therefore, we set it aside as being a useless piece of propaganda against the government,” Roque said.

Duterte’s lethal drug war, where rights groups claim as many as 16,000 people have been killed, featured prominently in the testimonies. Philippine authorities have claimed there have been no extrajudicial killings in the campaign and that police officials had in every instance fired only in self-defense against drug suspects.

President Rodrigo Duterte fires a few rounds with a sniper rifle during the opening ceremony of the National SWAT team Challenge in Davao City, southern Philippine island of Mindanao. Photo: AFP/Presidential Photo Division/Joey Dalumpines

One of the witnesses, Hamidullah Atar, the Sultan of Marawi, testified against Duterte and the military on the human rights violations committed against the residents of Marawi, during and after last year’s five-month siege of the Muslim city by militants aligned with Islamic State. Duterte placed the entire island of Mindanao under martial law, which is due to expire in December.

The Marawi siege tested the mettle of Filipino troops in urban warfare, displaced over 350,000 civilians, many of whom are still languishing at evacuation centers or staying with their relatives, and left the core of Marawi in shambles. Some 1,100 individuals were killed during the five-month war, believed to be mostly Islamic militants.

In testimony obtained by Asia Times, Atar criticized Duterte’s declaration of rights-curbing martial law and massive assault to liberate the city, including through the use of aerial bombardments that contributed largely to the city’s ruin.

“The state of martial law violated the principles of proportionality in international humanitarian law as it paved the way for the destruction of our cultural sites and worship areas with the bombing of at least 37 mosques, 44 madrasah facilities and 22 schools,” the sultan said.

A soldier rides a bicycle past bombed-out buildings in what was the main battle area in Marawi on the southern island of Mindanao, October 25, 2017. Photo: AFP/Teed Aljibe

At least 27,000 families residing at Marawi’s so-called ground zero have not been allowed by the government to return to or rebuild their homes almost a year after troops regained control of the war-torn city. Atar noted that his IPT testimony aimed to highlight legal violations that took place in Marawi so they are documented and known by the international community.

Australian missionary nun Patricia Fox, who is contesting a deportation order in the Philippines, also testified at the IPT through a video feed, claiming that she was harassed by the Duterte government. Duterte had ordered the nun’s deportation for allegedly participating in political activities. The 71-year-old nun, who has been living in the Philippines for nearly three decades on a missionary visa, had denied the accusation.

The IPT suit was filed by local Filipino groups, including Bagong Alyansang Makabayan, Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas, Gabriela, Migrante, Kadamay, Karapatan, Hustisya, Desaparecidos, Selda, Sandugo, Rise Up for Life and for Rights, and Movement Against Tyranny.

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