Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has sought to distance himself from alleged abuses by law enforcers under his watch, after a national outcry over the killing of a mother and her son by a police officer, which was captured on video and spread like wildfire on social media.
In a televised address on Monday night, Duterte said the shootings were “too brutal”, describing the officer involved as having a “mental disorder”, even as a chorus of condemnation erupted and Vice President Leni Robredo – an opposition politician – condemned “a larger architecture of impunity” in the country.
“Don’t include those lunatic cops and soldiers from my affection of the police and the military,” Duterte said in Filipino, swearing that he would make sure the suspect would not be able to get away with his crime.
“I don’t think that you can escape the rigours of justice because it was captured on TV,” he said.
“You do not follow the law, you kill people, then I’m sorry. That is not part of our agreement on how we should do our work,” Duterte added. The president had previously sworn to protect law enforcers from prosecution.
Shock and anger quickly spread after Police Senior Master Sergeant Jonel Nuezca shot 52-year-old Sonya Gregorio at point-blank range as she tried to shield her son, Frank, who was also killed. Nuezca’s young daughter witnessed the shootings.
The incident on Sunday afternoon, in Tarlac province north of Metro Manila, was caught on video and shared thousands of times on different social media platforms overnight, dominated headlines in the Philippines.
The suspect later turned himself in to authorities and police said on Monday afternoon that he had been charged with the murder of the mother and son.
‘Clear pattern of brutality’
On Monday night, Robredo, the vice president said that despite “a clear pattern of brutality and a string of cases” committed by the officer involved, “the leadership allowed him to remain in service.” The officer involved was also accused of committing homicide in 2019.
She said that blame could not just be pointed “on the person who pulled the trigger” but the “bigger structure” that allowed such killings to happen.
“We are bound in horror, grief, and empathy for Sonya and Frank Gregorio, as we are bound in condemnation of their senseless murders and of the murders of so many innocents over the past years.”
Duterte’s comments about the killings being “caught on TV”, also drew flak, with netizens questioning the lack of action taken over alleged police involvement in several past incidents that were not captured on camera.
Opposition Senator Leila de Lima, who is in prison for what her supporters say are made-up drug charges, condemned Duterte saying he had “no credibility” on police brutality.
“This is the very fruit of the poisonous culture of death he managed to implant in our society.”
Interior Secretary Eduardo Ano condemned the killings, but defended the police as an institution, calling the incident as “unfortunate but isolated”.
The United Nations Human Rights Commission, however, noted in June that Duterte’s comments about killings in the country “may have incited violence and may have had the effect of encouraging, backing or even ordering human rights violations with impunity”.
The Philippine Commission on Human Rights said the latest killings were “brazen and senseless”, and called for an investigation into the incident.
“We have seen deaths after deaths. How much more until the killings stop,” CHR spokesperson Jacqueline de Guia said in a statement.
This is our collective grief. https://t.co/F4cLH9809E
— Jeff Canoy (@jeffcanoy) December 22, 2020
The newly appointed Philippine Police Chief Debold Sinas himself has also been accused by the Human Rights Watch of having a “troubling human rights record”.
According to the group, while Sinas was regional police chief in Negros Island between July 2018 to October 2019, “activists, peasants, labour leaders, and lawyers were murdered in a spate of killings and massacres”.
In a statement sent to Al Jazeera, Edre Olalia, National Union of People’s Lawyers, said that in recent years top government officials “guarantees of impunity and even a pat on the back” risked “inspiring” police and law enforcement officers.
“You create monsters in our midst ready to go berserk anytime, anywhere,” Olalia said.
When you have these people running the country, the brutal and brazen killing of the Gregorios isn't really that surprising.
Philippines’ Duterte Confesses to ‘Drug War’ Slaughter https://t.co/N5XzJ8bU9y
New Philippine Police Chief Has Troubling Record https://t.co/KVAmfSRGvL
— Carlos H. Conde (@condeHRW) December 21, 2020
Earlier this month, the anti-drug enforcement unit of a northern Philippine province was disbanded after two of its police officers were tagged as the main suspects in the killing and beheading of a man.
In June, police officers in Jolo, Sulu were also caught on video firing at and killing four men, who turned out to be military intelligence officers pursuing Abu Sayyaf suspects.
And in April, at the outset of the coronavirus pandemic, a police officer in Metro Manila was also caught on camera firing at a retired soldier who was accused of violating lockdown orders, despite his repeated pleas that he was unarmed and was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. The officer involved was later charged with murder and for fabricating evidence.
In a report on December 14, the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) chief prosecutor, said there was “reasonable basis to believe” that crimes against humanity had been committed in connection with the killings of at least 5,300 people in Duterte’s so-called war on drugs.
Human rights advocates say as many as 27,000 people had been killed as of mid-2019 – including the victims killed by “unknown gunmen”, some of whom later turned out to be police officers.
In 2020 amid the coronavirus pandemic lockdown, Al Jazeera also tracked down several other reported killings.