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Duterte's death squads: Crimes against humanity in the Philippines

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With 7,000 recorded deaths, President Duterte's "war on drugs" is a murderous war against the country's poorest. Stephen Keim and Luke Craske report.

IT HAPPENS. I sit and read about events happening in other parts of the world.

I find difficulty in believing that such terrible events can happen. Surely, the world will rise up and stop it. But we don’t.

The genocide in Rwanda was one such event. The lead up to and consummation of the massacre in Srebrenica was another. Then I become convinced of my own powerlessness. I tune out. I become complicit.

Horrible events are assuming a new normality — again, right now.

Rodrigo Duterte became President of the Philippines on 30 June 2016. As the mayor of Davao City on Mindanao for over 20 years, Duterte made himself a reputation by supporting the extra-judicial killing of drug users. Over 1,400 deaths were attributed to vigilante death squads in Davao between 2005 and 2009. He campaigned for the presidency on a promise to defeat crime by killing tens of thousands of criminals. He won the 9 May 2016 election in a landslide. That is when my disbelief set in.

Since he became president, Duterte’s war on drugs has produced more than 7,000 deaths. Early in March, Human Rights Watch published a report, '"License to Kill': Philippine Police Killings in Duterte’s "War on Drugs"', which confirmed that police have been falsifying evidence to justify their unlawful killings. Emergencies director, Peter Bouckaert, author of the 117-page report, said that police repeatedly carry out extra-judicial killings of drug suspects and then falsely claim self-defence. They plant guns, spent ammunition and drug packets on their victims’ bodies to implicate them in drug activities, he said.

Another way in which killings occur is by masked gunmen who appear to be working closely with the police. This casts doubt on government claims that most of the killings are done by vigilantes or rival drug gangs.

The investigation included interviews with 28 family members of victims as well as interviews with witnesses to police killings and witnesses to the acts of planting evidence. Investigators also spoke to journalists and human rights activists familiar with the events. The report checks official police reports of incidents against the evidence gathered by human rights watch.

Mr Bouckaert said in several incidents victims had been held as suspects in police custody, but their deaths were later classified by police as “found bodies” or “deaths under investigation”. In fact, no meaningful investigations are being carried out by police and no one has been prosecuted for any death.

In an interview, Mr Bouckaert said that the killings are effectively a war on the poor. During the daytime, things appear relatively normal, he said. And, in middle-class areas, the killing campaign is barely noticeable. Focussed on the poorest areas, at one point, as many as 35 people were being gunned down in a single night.

The killings start as soon as people go to bed. They normally involve a squad of eight to ten armed, masked men in civilian clothes on motorcycles looking for the person targeted. They pull them out of their beds and then execute them. Mr Bouckaert made the point that acts of that kind by such large groups of people could not be regularly carried on without being detected by police. This is a strong clue that the killings are being carried out by, or in cooperation with, the police, he said.

Human Rights Watch has called for the United Nations to investigate the killings.

Senator Leila de Lima, Filipina lawyer, former chair of the Philippine Commission on Human Rights, former secretary of the Department of Justice and a leading critic of Duterte, was elected a Senator on 30 June 2016. Senator Lima has condemned Duterte’s War on Drugs and, in turn, has been viciously defamed by Duterte to harass and silence her. She has since been the subject of a warrant and arrested for alleged drug crimes. As with the dead bodies, manufacturing evidence against one’s critics may not be a problem for the President of the Philippines.

The European Union has condemned the prosecution as involving charges which are almost entirely fabricated and expressed concerns over what it called credible reports that police are falsifying evidence to justify extra-judicial killings. Amnesty International has also published a report based on direct witness testimony reporting extrajudicial killings, planting of evidence and remarkably similar incident reports by police seeking to justify its shooting of suspects.

It would seem that such a murderous war on the poor of one’s own country would amount to crimes against humanity. The International Criminal Court has responsibility for dealing with such international crimes. Since the Philippines is a party to the Rome Statute, Duterte is not immune from its prosecutors and its authority. But, for the moment, those prosecutors show no urgency to investigate.

Against this background, Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop is planning to meet Duterte in his hometown of Davao, where the killings commenced. Indeed, as I write, I find a 55-minute old report that describes the warm and cordial meeting between Ms Bishop and her moccasin-clad host. They talk about the South China Sea and Ms Bishop criticises China. No talk of 7,000 murders committed on the poor dressed up as a war on drugs and defended by planted evidence. Apparently no concern about the arrest of a leading critic.

The world is not rising up. The killings are going on as I write and as you read this piece. For Australia’s foreign minister, it would appear that diplomacy and a strange discretion has proved to be the ascendant part of valour. The international actors who have the power to investigate also seem strangely reticent. But I will not disengage. As Senator Sanders has said in another context, "despair is not an option". Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International are providing us with the truth at great risk to many of their workers and sources.

Senator de Lima has been arrested and harassed for telling us that same truth. We must promulgate that truth.

Neither despair nor complicity is an option.

Stephen Keim is a barrister and president of Australian Lawyers for Human Rights. You can follow him on Twitter @StephenKeim1Luke Craske is an arts/law student at the University of Queensland.

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