Activists hold a protest in front of Camp Crame, the headquarters of the Philippine National Police (PNP), carrying mock dead bodies, condemning the government's War on Drugs and holding placards showing the picture of the late South Korean businessman Jee Ick-Joo, who was murdered allegedly by suspected policemen in Manila on January 27, 2017. The South Korean businessman was allegedly kidnapped by Philippine policemen under the guise of a raid on illegal drugs and murdered at the national police headquarters in Manila, authorities said on January 18. / AFP PHOTO / NOEL CELIS

Three years into the administration of the Philippines’ strongman president, Rodrigo Duterte, and despite rising international condemnation, his bloody war on poor drug users continues unabated, with a pattern of unlawful executions under the guise of police sting operations, the human-rights group Amnesty International said in a report released on Monday.

The report, “‘They Just Kill:’ Ongoing Extrajudicial Executions and Other Violations in the Philippines’ ‘War on Drugs,’” comes as the United Nations Human Rights Council is expected to vote on a resolution this week calling for an investigation into the killings in the Philippines. Amnesty is calling on the UNHRC to approve that resolution.

“Three years on, President Duterte’s ‘war on drugs’ continues to be nothing but a large-scale murdering enterprise for which the poor continue to pay the highest price,” said Nicholas Bequelin, Amnesty’s regional director for East and Southeast Asia. “It is time for the United Nations, starting with its Human Rights Council, to act decisively to hold President Duterte and his government accountable.”

Philippine police accept responsibility for more than 6,000 killings, saying they occurred in raids in which armed suspects fought back against police, but the actual number of killings, many conducted by shadowy vigilante groups suspected of links to the police, may be twice or three times that figure. Opposition legislators said in February 2018 that the death toll had reached 20,000.

Amnesty said the true number may never be known because “deliberate obfuscation and misinformation” from authorities make it impossible to get an accurate tally of the killings, which targeted poor and marginalized communities that lack the means to challenge police misconduct and abuses.

It’s not just the number of killings that is in doubt, but the circumstances surrounding them. While police typically claimed self-defense, witness and other information developed by Amnesty suggests a pattern of “extrajudicial executions,” a polite way of saying murders by police. The claim that police were only defending themselves “doesn’t meet the feeblest standards of credibility,” Amnesty concluded.

According to Amnesty:

“A Filipino forensic expert interviewed by Amnesty International said that police reports of ‘buy-bust’ operations she had examined did not meet the minimum standards of plausibility: ‘It’s so consistent, it’s a script. In fact, when you see the report, it looks like a template,’ she said.”

In an all-too-typical case, Amnesty reported, “police claimed Jovan Magtanong, a 30-year-old father of three, fired at them, and that they recovered a .38 caliber” pistol and baggies of illegal drugs “from the scene of the incident. Witnesses said he was sleeping alongside his children when officers knocked on his house door asking for another man. Jovan’s family said he did not own a gun and had not used drugs for over a year.”

“They killed him like an animal,” a family member told Amnesty.

Amnesty’s latest report builds on a January 2017 investigation showing police had systematically targeted mostly poor and defenseless people across the country, planting “evidence,” recruiting paid killers, stealing from the people they killed, and fabricating official reports. That report centered on Metro Manila, then the epicenter of the killings, but the new report follows the pattern of killings to the Bulacan province in Luzon, the new hotbed of drug-war atrocities.

Amnesty examined 27 killings there during 20 incidents, 18 of which were official police operations. Based on witness accounts and other information, it concluded that half were extrajudicial executions. Amnesty said it couldn’t develop enough information to qualify the other deaths, but said they pointed broadly to previous patterns of executions.

Amnesty also highlighted the role of “watch lists” of people in communities suspected of using or selling drugs. The “watch lists” are compiled by local officials under pressure to show results in the war on drugs by collecting the names of suspected drug users and sellers. “These lists effectively serve as guides for police of people to arrest or kill,” Amnesty said. Amnesty “views these lists as unreliable, illegitimate, and unjustifiable,” the group said.

“The Duterte administration has created a deadly numbers game where officials must manufacture lists and monitor them, regardless of whether the individuals on it actually use or sell drugs. This insatiable and vicious system rewards blind compliance and murder,” Nicholas Bequelin said.

And the police act with impunity. Of all the killings acknowledged by the police, only one, the murder of 17-year-old Kian delos Santos in August 2017, which generated global media attention, actually saw police officers punished. But the man in charge of the police there, Senior Superintendent Chito Bersaluna, suffered only a period of “administrative leave” and is now working the drug war in Bulacan.

“The transfer of senior police officials to regions where killings then surged is an alarming indicator of impunity,” Bequelin said. “The Duterte administration’s continuing efforts to deny and deflect responsibility are nothing short of mendacious.”

The achingly callous attitude of Philippine drug warriors toward their fellow citizens was made clear last week when Ronald Dela Rosa, now a senator but earlier the Metro Manila police chief and lead conductor of Duterte’s drug war, defended the killing of a three-year-old girl in a drug raid near Manila.

Shit happens,” he said as he accused the girl’s father of using her as a human shield.

“It is not safe to be poor in President Duterte’s Philippines,” Bequelin said. “All it takes to be murdered is an unproven accusation that someone uses, buys, or sells drugs. Everywhere we went to investigate drug-related killings ordinary people were terrified. Fear has now spread deep into the social fabric of society.”

Duterte and his henchmen have already fended off the International Criminal Court (by leaving it) and attempts by domestic critics to investigate their drug war crimes. Now it’s time for the UN Human Rights Council to step up.

This article was produced by Drug Reporter, a project of the Independent Media Institute, which provided it to Asia Times.

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Phillip Smith

Phillip Smith is a writing fellow and the editor and chief correspondent of Drug Reporter, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has been a drug-policy journalist for the past two decades. He is the longtime author of the Drug War Chronicle, the online publication of the non-profit, and has been the editor of AlterNet’s Drug Reporter since 2015. He received the Drug Policy Alliance’s Edwin M Brecher Award for Excellence in Media in 2013.

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