(New York) – The Philippine Senate has ousted the chair of the Senate Committee on Justice and Human Rights in an apparent reprisal for her inquiry into the surge in killings linked to President Rodrigo Duterte’s “war on drugs,” Human Rights Watch said today. The Senate should seek Sen. Leila De Lima’s immediate reinstatement to signal its support for justice and human rights.

Sen. Leila De Lima speaks at the Philippine Senate hearing on the recent surge in killings on August 23, 2016. 

On September 19, 2016, senators who accused De Lima of being “biased” voted 16 to 4 to replace her as chairwoman in favor of “someone neutral.” At a Senate hearing on September 15, admitted former “hit man” Edgar Matobato had testified on Duterte’s involvement in the killings of about 1,000 people in Davao City, where Duterte had been mayor for more than two decades.

“The Senate vote to remove the chair of the Committee on Justice and Human Rights is a craven attempt to derail accountability for the appalling death toll from President Duterte's abusive ‘war on drugs,’” said Phelim Kine, deputy Asia director. “The Senate is imperiling the Philippine public by covering up allegations of state-sanctioned murder rather than exposing them.”

In August, De Lima convened Senate hearings into the killings of more than 2,000 alleged drug users and drug dealers since Duterte took office on June 30. The hearings exposed her to a torrent of harassment and intimidation from Duterte and other government officials. Last month Duterte told a crowd of supporters that De Lima should commit suicide, saying, “If I were De Lima, ladies and gentlemen, I’ll hang myself.”

The most recent Philippine National Police data shows that from July 1 to September 4, police killed an estimated 1,011 suspected “drug pushers and users,” more than 14 times the 68 such police killings recorded between January 1 and June 15. Police blame the killings on suspects who “resisted arrest and shot at police officers,” but refuse to launch an investigation into the deaths. Police statistics attribute another 1,067 killings of alleged drug dealers and users in the past two months to unknown gunmen.

In 2009, Human Rights Watch published the report, “‘You Can Die Any Time’: Death Squad Killings in Mindanao,” detailing the involvement of police and local government officials in targeted death squad killings in Davao City during Duterte’s time as mayor. Another Human Rights Watch report from 2014, “‘One Shot to the Head’: Death Squad Killings in Tagum City, Philippines,” documents police involvement in what appeared to be a copycat policy of extrajudicial killings in a city nearby Davao City. Human Rights Watch has called for the Philippine government to convene an independent investigation involving the United Nations into allegations of direct involvement by President Duterte in extrajudicial killings.

“The Philippine Senate has a duty to promote accountability for the thousands of victims of this ‘war on drugs,’ rather than siding with those advocating summary killings as law enforcement,” Kine said. “Opposition to an impartial investigation into these killings only intensifies the spotlight on Duterte and his administration’s disregard for basic human rights protections for all Filipinos.”