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Rodrigo Duterte relaunches Philippine drug war despite calls for investigation

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Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has vowed to continue his “war on drugs” in spite of growing calls for an investigation into his role in it.

On March 6, the Philippine government lifted its suspension on police anti-drug operations. The suspension had been imposed in January following revelations that anti-drug police had kidnapped and killed a South Korean businessman.

Philippine National Police Director-General Ronald dela Rosa has christened this new phase of the drug war Project Double Barrel Alpha, Reloaded, and has said it will be “less bloody, if not bloodless” than that of the previous eight months.

That bloodshed is unquestionable: police and “unidentified gunmen” have killed more than 7,000 suspected drug users and drug dealers since July 2016.

Extrajudicial killings

The body count in the first 24 hours since the resumption of police anti-drug operations indicate that the slaughter will only continue.

Police killed at least eight suspected “drug personalities” on day one. That included a couple killed in a raid involving police backed by soldiers in the southern island of Mindanao.

As has become the norm, the police tried to justify those deaths on the dubious basis that the suspects “fought back.”

Our research at Human Rights Watch found that the police have repeatedly carried out extrajudicial killings of drug suspects, and then falsely claimed self-defense. They plant guns, spent ammunition, and drug packets on their victims’ bodies to implicate them in drug activities.

The Philippines’ official Commission on Human Rights has decried the resumption of police anti-drug operations as “arbitrary” and “susceptible to abuse.” It has blamed the anti-drug campaign for causing “thousands to be killed without due process,” but dela Rosa dismissed those concerns by claiming that police “have not killed anybody for nothing.”

The director general of police has been in no hurry to confirm the Commission on Human Rights’ claim. He has resisted calls for an independent inquiry into those 2,555 killings attributed to the police during the previous phase of the anti-drug crackdown by declaring it would harm police “morale.”

Ronald dela Rosa is taking his cues from Duterte, who has rejected all criticism of his drug war and declared that the anti-drug operations will continue until the end of his term in 2022.

“There will be more killings,” Duterte vowed on March 2, “it won’t end tomorrow for as long as there is a drug pusher and drug lord.”

Police and vigilantes

Duterte has repeatedly claimed that the carnage of his drug war is a life and death battle against shadowy “drug lords.” But in the several dozen cases investigated by Human Rights Watch, the victims of drug-related killings were either unemployed or worked menial jobs, including as drivers or porters, and lived in slums or informal settlements.

Duterte has even defended the killings of poor Filipinos in the drug war, saying they represent “the apparatus” of illegal drug use.“

And while the police are only now officially returning to the anti-drug fight, those "unidentified gunmen” have continued to kill with impunity. Their victims include 22-year-old Jomar Palamar and his 20-year-old girlfriend Juday Escilona, shot dead on March 1 as they emerged from a convenience store in a Manila slum area.

Local neighbourhood government officials say the two were on a police watch list for allegedly being drug users. Two nights later, unidentified gunmen killed five more suspected drug users within hours in Manila’s Quezon City.

The police attribute at least 3,603 drug war killings to these “unidentified gunmen” or “vigilantes.” They classify those killings as “deaths under investigation,” but there is a palpable lack of curiosity to identify the killers.

Although the Philippine National Police have classified a total of 922 killings as “cases where investigation has concluded,” there is no evidence that those probes have resulted in the arrest and prosecution of the perpetrators.

Legal fiction

The official narrative regarding “unidentified gunmen” is in fact a legal fiction designed to shield police from culpability in death squad-style extrajudicial killings.

While the police have publicly sought to distinguish between suspects killed while resisting arrest and killings by “unknown gunmen” or “vigilantes,” Human Rights Watch research found no such distinction in the cases investigated.

In several of those cases, the police dismissed allegations of involvement and instead classified such killings as “found bodies” or “deaths under investigation” when only hours before the suspects had been in police custody. Interviews with witnesses to killings, relatives of victims and analysis of police records expose a damning pattern of unlawful police conduct designed to paint a veneer of legality over summary executions.

Masked gunmen taking part in killings appeared to be working closely with the police, casting doubt on government claims that most killings have been committed by vigilantes or rival drug gangs.

It’s clear that the Duterte government is unwilling to initiate a credible and impartial inquiry into this carnage. Anything short of a United Nations-sponsored independent international investigation will only ensure that the killings continue.

Until there’s an urgent and loud international response, there’s no end in sight for Duterte’s drug war.

The ConversationPhelim Kine works for Human Rights Watch as the deputy director of Asia division and supervises HRW's Philippines' research and advocacy. He supervised the research project the results of which are cited in this piece.

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