ICC chief prosecutor wants a full investigation into possible crimes against humanity.
Choking back her tears, Llore Pasco still wonders if she did enough to protect her sons, Crisanto, a father of four and a security guard, and Juan Carlos, a bachelor and part-time electric bill collector and former janitor.
It has been more than four years since the brothers went missing from their village in Metro Manila on May 11, 2017. That morning, Crisanto had left early to apply for a security guard’s licence, never to return. By noon, Llore’s family started to grow anxious when they realised Juan Carlos was not to be found either.
Their worry turned to shock and grief after learning on television the following day that the brothers had died. Reports said they were killed in a police operation following an alleged robbery not far from where they lived in Quezon City, part of the Philippines’ sprawling capital.
Llore immediately suspected foul play. Her suspicions grew when she found out her sons sustained more than a dozen gunshots each, including in their foreheads.
Llore admits her sons had previously experimented with drugs and had fallen in with the “wrong crowd”.
But that was many years ago before President Rodrigo Duterte came to office, she said. This despite having turned themselves in to authorities at the start of the president’s anti-drug crackdown in mid-2016. DIsmissing the objections of her sons, she had insisted that they report to the village chief, because “they had nothing to hide anyway”.
“Sometimes, I still ask myself if it was all my fault,” she said, her voice cracking.
It would take another week and a hefty $1,500 fee for Llore to recover their bullet-ridden bodies.
“I really love my sons … the pain never really goes away,” Llore said, as she spoke of the “indignities” her family was subjected to.
Llore’s testimony is included among the additional evidence and testimonies that an independent human rights group, INVESTIGATE PH, is seeking to submit to the International Criminal Court (ICC), which has begun a preliminary investigation into the president’s so-called “drug war” following the deaths of thousands of people. Llore had submitted evidence to the ICC previously.
INVESTIGATE PH is one of several human rights groups backing the call by recently retired ICC chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda for The Hague court to formally look into alleged “crimes against humanity of murder” committed during Duterte’s war on drugs.
The families of the victims have until August 13 to submit to the ICC additional documents detailing the rights abuses allegedly committed by the Duterte administration.
On Wednesday, Llore said that at least eight families from her group are filing supplementary evidence to the ICC.
On Thursday, she told Al Jazeera that at least 30 more families expressed interest in filing their complaint, and that 26 families showed up at their meeting on Wednesday night. The next step is for the legal volunteers to visit the families in their homes and help them prepare their affidavits.
Multiple investigations have revealed that police are coordinating with vigilantes to orchestrate extrajudicial killings. Police are suspected of falsely incriminating murder victims through planting evidence. (1/2) pic.twitter.com/Oyjp5kzrYO
— investigate.ph (@Investigate_PH) July 6, 2021
Duterte ‘criminally liable’
The latest government data shows that as of the end of April 2021, police and security forces killed at least 6,117 suspected drug dealers during operations, although figures cited by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights showed that more than 8,600 had already been killed from March 2020.
A Philippine police report in 2017 also referred to 16,355 “homicide cases under investigations” as part of its “accomplishments” in the drug war.
In December 2016, Al Jazeera reported more than 6,000 deaths in the drug war. It questioned the inconsistency of the government’s record-keeping system and the possible “manipulation” of data.
Rights groups say the number of deaths could be at least 27,000, including those killed by “unknown” gunmen, some of whom turned out to be police officers.
INVESTIGATE PH said in a statement to Al Jazeera that it also wants the United Nations Human Rights Council to act and “ensure” that Duterte “is held criminally liable for official orders” that are backed by his countless public statements to “kill drug users and dissenters”.
The rights group says the Philippine government itself should be made responsible for the “thousands of extrajudicial killings, abductions and disappearances” among other rights violations.
Duterte and his top officials have defended the police’s operation tactics, saying there is a “presumption of regularity” despite the president’s public statements, urging the police to “kill” suspects.
In response to a question raised by Al Jazeera during a recent online forum, Philippine Police commander, General Guillermo Eleazar said that in the last five years of the Duterte administration, violent crimes have been reduced by 59 percent – many of which he said were linked to the drug trade.
“I’ve seen with my own eyes the devastating effect of drugs … and now everybody could admit that our communities are safer. While it is true that it is not a perfect situation for us, but we have made strides,” said Eleazar, who was a district police commander in Metro Manila at the beginning of Duterte’s term.
In the course of five years, more than 290,000 drug suspects have been arrested and about two percent of those have died, Eleazar said. He said all those who were killed fought back against the authorities and promised to investigate allegations of abuse.
But Eleazar acknowledges that the Philippines’s drug issues have yet to be resolved while maintaining that progress has been made. Several of the “big time” operators of drug syndicates, many of whom are based “outside the country”, have yet to be arrested, he said.
Among those who have been identified is alleged “drug lord” Peter Lim, who has been photographed several times alongside Duterte. Earlier this month, authorities said it was possible that Lim had already left the country despite a 2018 indictment on drug-related charges.
PNP chief: No clear info yet on whereabouts of drug suspect Peter Lim https://t.co/UGOetMNumS
— ABS-CBN News Channel (@ANCALERTS) July 3, 2021
‘Template for abuse’
INVESTIGATE PH says that despite the increased pressure from the international community, the Philippine police have refused to turn over most of the files of the killings to the justice department as legally required. The most recent request was rejected last month, according to the group.
The “lack of redress” for the alleged abuses, the attempts by police to “routinely coverup the circumstances of killings in anti-drug operations”, as well as the documented efforts to “intimidate” families and potential witnesses, only lead to the more abuse and “state terror” under the Duterte administration, the report said.
The report alleges that the “systematic killing machine” developed under the president’s war on drugs is now being turned into a template for other abuses such as going after the perceived enemies of the Duterte administration, including political opponents, church workers and activists.
The report also accuses government forces of failing to distinguish between Muslim combatants and civilians under the guise of its “war against terrorism” in the southern island of Mindanao, which has led to the mass displacement of Muslim communities.
INVESTIGATE PH is also demanding “accountability and an end to the injustice” in the Philippines, says Australian Senator Janet Rice, who is part of the independent investigative commission on human rights.
“Throughout this investigation, we have remained steadfast in our objective to realise justice for the victims of human rights violations in the Philippines,” Rice said in a statement.
The ICC is expected to make its decision as early as mid-August whether to proceed with the formal investigation on Duterte’s war on drugs.
‘Failed drug war’
Observers say it is likely the ICC investigation will move into the next stage.
Former Congress member and human rights lawyer Neri Colmenares notes that British lawyer, Karim Khan, who has succeeded Bensouda as ICC prosecutor, is already familiar with the war on drugs in the Philippines.
“I don’t see any reason why he would have any difficulty in the investigation. His background knowledge of what’s happening here, and other crimes of humanity and war crimes around the world is extensive,” Colmenares said at a recent online forum.
Colmenares also said that despite the ferocity of Duterte’s war on drugs, “it is clear that his policy is a failure”.
“For all the deaths linked to the war on drugs, have we really solved the drug problem? Are we better off now as a nation? The corruption is still there, drugs are still prevalent and crimes are still being committed. It’s clear that it is a failure, and that President Duterte is incompetent,” Colmenares told Al Jazeera.
The Duterte administration has dismissed the latest developments at the ICC as “politically motivated”.
Duterte’s spokesman Harry Roque has said the Philippine government will not cooperate with any effort by The Hague, citing the president’s decision to withdraw its ICC membership in 2019.
Duterte himself declared in June that he will not participate in the ICC legal deliberation, threatening to “slap” the court’s judges while calling the international body “bulls**t”.
But former University of the Philippines College of Law Dean Pacifico Agabin warns Duterte’s legal strategy is ill-advised and could even backfire, as it will only shorten the time for the ICC to review the case and proceed to the formal trial, during which the court could even issue an arrest warrant.
“If the president [Duterte] will not participate, then the investigation will proceed much faster,” Agabin explained during the same online forum.
By participating in the investigation, Duterte and his lawyers will be given time to review the evidence presented and question any inconsistencies they may find, thus prolonging the process, the highly respected legal expert said.
Tony La Vina, the dean of the Ateneo School of Government in Manila, agreed, saying Duterte’s team would be well advised to take part in the ICC probe. “They have a better chance appearing, rather than not appearing”.
By participating in the investigation, however, the Duterte administration would also be required to allow ICC investigators to travel to the Philippines and conduct their own probe.
But even without Duterte’s cooperation, it could still take time for the ICC to proceed with the trial and reach a verdict, La Vina noted, citing previous cases in Kosovo and Rwanda.
“But the long arm of law and justice reaches you in some form or another. And sometimes, it will just be history that will make that judgement. But the judgement will still be made.”
As she awaits the ICC’s decision, Llore, the mother of slain brothers Crisanto and Juan Carlos, says the torment of the killings still haunts her.
Last March, a village official had visited the house of Crisanto looking for Juan Carlos. The village official reportedly came by to inform the family that Juan Carlos “has already been cleared of drug use”, Llore said, calling it a slap in the face.
Faced with the prospect of a long trial, Llore says she is willing to wait until justice is done.
“The hope alone that someday we will eventually attain justice, that already gives me enough strength to fight. Duterte has to account for all his deeds.”