Nanette Castillo grieves in October, 2017, next to the body of her son Aldrin, an alleged drug user killed by unidentified assailants in Manila. Photo: AFP / Noel Celis

MANILA – Just weeks before candidates file for upcoming Philippine presidential elections, the International Criminal Court (ICC) has announced that it’s formally commencing investigations into President Rodrigo Duterte’s deadly drug war.

There is “reasonable basis” to push ahead with a full-blown probe due to evidence indicating “specific legal element of the crime against humanity of murder”, according to the Hague-based tribunal in an official  statement on Wednesday.

Based on evidence provided on behalf of hundreds of victims, the international court found “widespread and systematic attacks against the civilian population took place pursuant to or in furtherance of a state policy”.

In response, Duterte’s chief legal counsel Salvador Panelo lambasted the ICC’s decision, claiming that it “neither bothers nor troubles the President and his administration.”

By all indications, however, the Filipino president is desperate to avoid any prosecution over his deadly drug war.

Earlier this month, he officially accepted the endorsement of the ruling PDP-Laban party to run as a vice-president in tandem with an anointed successor in next year’s elections. Duterte is apparently pushing for his long-time aide, Senator Christopher “Bong” Go, to succeed him next year.  

The decision potentially violates the constitution, which only permits a single, six-year term for any president.

The move also triggered public criticism from presidential daughter Sara Duterte, who has announced her withdrawal from the presidential run, protesting lack of coordination with her father.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte talks to then National Police director-general Ronald Dela Rosa at the Malacanang palace in Manila. Photo: AFP / Noel Celis

Amid squabbles in the Duterte camp, and growing public discontent over the government’s pandemic management, the opposition is developing a common front in next year’s elections, with Manila Mayor Francisco “Isko” Moreno fast emerging as their  choice against the incumbent.

After years of preliminary examination, the ICC has raised the prospect of early trials against top Filipino officials, including Duterte.

“In the assessment of the chamber, there exists information sufficiently linking the killings in the Davao area in 2011-2016 to the relevant facts of the so-called ‘war on drugs’ campaign as discussed above,” said the pre-trial chamber of the ICC, also reviewing alleged mass atrocities when Duterte was the mayor of the southern city prior to his presidency.

 “For these reasons, the chamber hereby authorizes the commencement of the investigation into the situation in the Philippines, in relation to crimes within the jurisdiction of the court allegedly committed on the territory of the Philippines between 1 November 2011 and 16 March 2019 in the context of the so-called ‘war on drugs’ campaign,” the judicial body added, extending its investigations throughout almost a decade of Duterte’s executive rule from Davao to Philippine presidency.  

ICC pre-trial judges Péter Kovács, Reine Adélaïde Sophie Alapini-Gansou and María del Socorro Flores Liera signed the order to investigate drug war killings in the Philippines based on “the sense that the crime against humanity of murder appears to have been committed, and that potential case(s) arising from such investigation appear to fall within the Court’s jurisdiction,”

The ICC judges also pointed their fingers directly at the Filipino leader, who “has publicly encouraged extrajudicial killings in a way that is incompatible with a genuine law enforcement operation.”

While acknowledging the Philippines’ sovereign right to combat the proliferation of illegal drugs, the court censured state-sponsored killings in the Southeast Asian country as a violation of fundamental human rights and contrary to basic principles of an “otherwise legitimate operation”.  

With Duterte’s term in office set to end next June, experts believe that ICC prosecutors will carefully consolidate existing evidence and testimonies for a full-blown trial of top Filipino officials in the near future.

Presidential legal adviser and former spokesman Salvador Panelo stood by the government’s position that the ICC has no jurisdiction over the issue. He insisted that the country’s justice system can competently address extrajudicial killings “if only genuine complainants come forward to the proper authorities instead of personalities who will use their plight for political ambitions.”

President Rodrigo Duterte with his daughter Davao Mayor Sara Duterte during a campaign stop in 2019. Photo: Presidential Photo / Richard Madelo

 “While we expect that more theatrics will be employed by the detractors of the President as election season draws near, this blatant and brazen interference and assault on our sovereignty as an independent country by the ICC is condemnable,” said Duterte’s top legal adviser.

 Earlier, the Philippine Supreme Court, packed with Duterte appointees, made it clear that the president’s earlier decision to withdraw the country’ membership from the ICC won’t exempt him and other top officials from scrutiny by the international court.

 Meanwhile, Duterte’s plans to stay in power via proxies is also in disarray. This week, his daughter, Sara, ruled out a run for the presidency, despite topping preliminary surveys of contenders in next year’s elections.       

“According to Mayor Sara, she will run for re-election as Davao City mayor and incumbent Vice Mayor Sebastian Duterte will run for re-election,” her spokesman Liloan Mayor Christina Frasco told the media on Thursday.

The Dutertes have until November to decide on their final line-up. In 2015, then Davao City Mayor Duterte ran as a “replacement” candidate after initially skipping the filing of candidacy deadline in October that year.

Meanwhile, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., the son of the former Filipino dictator, has indicated his willingness to throw his hat into the ring, representing a new challenge to the Dutertes.

“I feel that at least it’s a possibility. It’s certainly part of the plan. The presidency is not taken off the table by any means,” Marcos said in an online forum organized by Chinese-Filipino businessmen earlier this month.

“In fact, if you look at the surveys, I do better in the presidential survey than the vice-presidential survey. So that’s a common sentiment – that many of our supporters want me to run for the presidency,” he added.

Sensing a unique opening, the opposition is also scrambling for a united front in next year’s elections. In a major development, Vice President Leni Robredo, the de facto leader of the opposition, announced her willingness to support a much-fancied tandem between boxer-turned-statesman Emmanuel “Manny” Pacquiao and Manila Mayor Isko Moreno, who has consistently topped surveys of potential vice-presidential and presidential contenders next year.

Senator Manny Pacquiao is welcomed by Mayor Isko Moreno Domagoso (L) and vice mayor Honey Lacuna at a flag raising ceremony in Manila. Photo: AFP / George Calvelo / NurPhoto

The three apparently held multiple meetings in person over the past week to iron out a winning tandem.

“She’s trying to get all wannabes to join together and make self-sacrifices in forging unity,” a staff member who attended the meetings told the media.

“I’m thankful to Vice President Leni Robredo for her trust in me,” Pacquiao said after the public endorsement by Robredo, who has struggled in recent surveys but has maintained a strong position as a consensus-builder among opposition and independent candidates.

“In case that I decide to run, I hope you will support me in my desire for peace and progress in our country,” the Filipino senator and boxing sensation added.

Meanwhile, Leni Robredo also held talks with Manila Mayor Isko Moreno, who is widely seen as the top rival to both the Dutertes and Marcoses.

Moreno is also exploring a potential tandem with another charismatic senator, Grace Poe, who was an early favorite in the 2016 elections before facing a legal challenge over her citizenship qualifications at the Supreme Court.

Similar to Pacquiao, Moreno is also a former ally who has turned on the Dutertes amid the widespread mismanagement of the pandemic. Earlier this month, he lambasted the Filipino president and his top cronies for “living in Wonderland” and having “no idea of reality.”

“I am asking you, Mr President, remove the people who don’t have compassion for their fellow human beings. Let’s do a clear accounting. Anyway, I’ll face you in October,” said Moreno in a clearest indication of his bid for the presidency next year.

“We’ll see each other in the finals. If you want politics, there’s time for that. For now, let’s save people,” he added.