Human Rights Watch accuses Duterte of instigating killing in 'cold blood'

The watchdog group said the Philippine president's public exhortations to kill drug suspects could make him liable for extrajudicial killings by police.

Martin Mejia/AP
Philippines' President Rodrigo Duterte attends a meeting between business leaders and heads of states of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation, APEC, during their annual forum in Lima, Peru, Nov. 19, 2016. A human rights watchdog on Thursday, March 2, 2017 accused the police in the Philippines of falsifying evidence to justify unlawful killings in the government's war on drugs that has caused more than 7,000 deaths, and pointed the finger at President Rodrigo Duterte as being ultimately responsible.

A new report by Human Rights Watch accuses the Philippine National Police of falsifying evidence to justify unlawful killings of suspected drug dealers and users as part of president Rodrigo Duterte’s signature war on drugs.

The president and other senior officials have “instigated and incited” extrajudicial killings in a campaign that could amount to crimes against humanity, said the watchdog group, which called on the United Nations to launch an investigation into the deaths of more than 7,000 people.

The report is among the sharpest international condemnations of Mr. Duterte’s war on drugs to emerge thus far, detailing a wide range of alleged National Police abuses and placing the blame ultimately at the feet of Duterte.

National Police spokesman Dionardo Carlos said that the 24 cases examined by the investigation yielded insufficient evidence to conclude that there were widespread abuses, and urged the watchdog group to take cases to court if there was sufficient evidence.

The force's internal affairs service had found violations in only 28 cases, out of 2,000 complaints, he added.

"If there is evidence that would point to the violations of these police officers, file cases against them,” Mr. Carlos told reporters, according to Reuters.

"We will not allow these officers to commit wrongdoings."

Presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella took a similar tack, dismissing the report as “thoughtless and irresponsible.”

"All these accusations of circumventing police procedures should be proven in a competent court and if found meritorious should result in appropriate sanctions against the perpetrators,” Mr. Abella said in a statement to Reuters.

"Failing these, such claims are mere hearsay." 

The report alleges that National Police members killed drug suspects and, falsely claiming self-defense, planted weapons and drugs on victims' bodies to implicate them. It also says they worked closely with vigilante gunmen whom the government blames, along with rival drug gangs, for the majority of killings. In several cases, the group says, suspects in police custody who later turned up dead were classified as "found bodies" or "deaths under investigation."

No evidence proves that the Philippine president planned or ordered specific extrajudicial killings, the watchdog group says, but his frequent calls for members of the public to kill drug suspects could make him criminally liable in a Filipino or international court. And despite being informed by the media, human rights groups, the UN, and foreign governments about extrajudicial killings by police, Duterte had done nothing to stop them, it said.

"His public comments in response to those allegations are evidence he knows about them," Human Rights Watch argued.

The accusations aimed at the National Police come a little over a month after Duterte suspended the force's involvement in the crackdown, replacing it with the military.

"The temporary suspension was, in part, a response to the kidnapping and murder last year of a South Korean businessman, whom officers killed at police headquarters. They later attempted to extort ransom money from his family under the pretense that he was still alive," The Christian Science Monitor reported in early February.

Of the roughly 8,000 people who have died since Duterte's campaign began in June last year, 2,555 of the deaths are listed as coming during police operations. The circumstances around most of the others remain in dispute.

Some of the allegations made in the report echo those made by Amnesty International last month, when it accused the police of "direct involvement" with killings carried out by unknown gunmen.

"At times, the police disguise themselves as vigilantes to avoid public suspicion about a particular killing; the police officer told us they would be inclined to kill women, in particular, disguised as vigilantes, rather than during formal police operations," it wrote.

This report contains material by the Associated Press and Reuters.

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