(Manila) – Philippine police are falsifying evidence to justify unlawful killings in a “war on drugs” that has caused more than 7,000 deaths, Human Rights Watch said today in a new report. President Rodrigo Duterte and other senior officials have instigated and incited killings of mostly urban poor in a campaign that could amount to crimes against humanity.
The United Nations should urgently create an independent, international investigation into the killings to determine responsibility, and ensure mechanisms for accountability, Human Rights Watch said.
“Our investigations into the Philippine ‘drug war’ found that police routinely kill drug suspects in cold blood and then cover up their crime by planting drugs and guns at the scene,” said Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director at Human Rights Watch and author of the report. “President Duterte’s role in these killings makes him ultimately responsible for the deaths of thousands.”
The 117-page report, “‘License to Kill’: Philippine Police Killings in Duterte’s ‘War on Drugs,’” found that the Philippine National 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. Masked gunmen taking part in killings appeared to be working closely with the police, casting doubt on government claims that the majority of killings have been committed by vigilantes or rival drug gangs. In several instances that Human Rights Watch investigated, suspects in police custody were later found dead and classified by police as “found bodies” or “deaths under investigation.” No one has been meaningfully investigated, let alone prosecuted, for any of the “drug war” killings.
The report draws heavily on interviews in the Metro Manila area with 28 family members of victims and witnesses to police killings, as well as journalists and human rights activists. It also references initial police reports of killings, which Human Rights Watch field research consistently contradicted.
Since taking office on June 30, 2016, Duterte and other senior officials have been outspoken in support of a nationwide campaign to kill drug dealers and users, while denying or downplaying the illegality of police actions. For instance, on August 6, Duterte warned drug dealers: “My order is shoot to kill you. I don’t care about human rights, you better believe me.” He praised the soaring body count of victims of police killings as proof of the “success” of his “war on drugs.”
Human Rights Watch documented 24 incidents that resulted in the deaths of 32 people. They typically occurred late at night either on the streets or inside informal shacks of urban slum areas. Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that the armed assailants operated in small groups. They typically wore black civilian clothes and shielded their faces with balaclava-style headgear or other masks, and baseball caps or helmets. The assailants would bang on doors and barge into rooms, but would not identify themselves or provide warrants. Family members reported hearing beatings and their loved ones begging for their lives. The shooting could happen immediately, behind closed doors or on the street; or the gunmen might take the suspect away, where minutes later, shots would ring out and local residents would find the body; or the body would be dumped elsewhere later, sometimes with hands tied or the head wrapped in plastic. Local residents often said they saw uniformed police on the outskirts of the incident, securing the perimeter, and even if not visible before a shooting, special crime scene investigators would arrive within minutes.
“Under the veneer of anti-drug operations, the Philippine police at Duterte’s urging have killed thousands of Filipinos,” Bouckaert said. “Many killings of drug suspects followed the same deadly routine and indicate a pattern of police abuse.”
Duterte has frequently characterized his “war on drugs” as targeting “drug lords” and “drug pushers.” However, in the cases investigated by Human Rights Watch, the victims of drug-related killings were all poor, except for one case of mistaken identity, and many were suspected drug users, not dealers. Almost all were either unemployed or worked menial jobs, including as rickshaw drivers or porters, and lived in slum neighborhoods or informal settlements.
Philippine authorities have failed to seriously investigate drug war killings by either the police or “unidentified gunmen,” Human Rights Watch said. Although the Philippine National Police has 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.
On January 30, the government announced a temporary suspension of police anti-drug operations following revelations of the brutal killing of a South Korean businessman by alleged anti-drug police. The following day, Duterte ordered the Armed Forces of the Philippines to fill the gap created by the suspended police operations by taking a frontline role in the anti-drug campaign. Duterte has publicly vowed to continue his anti-drug campaign until his presidential term ends in 2022.
Duterte and his chief subordinates could be held criminally liable in the Philippines or by a court abroad for their role in these killings, Human Rights Watch said. No evidence thus far shows that Duterte planned or ordered specific extrajudicial killings, but his repeated calls for killings as part of his anti-drug campaign could constitute acts instigating law enforcement to commit murder. His statements encouraging the general population to commit vigilante violence against suspected drug users could be criminal incitement.
Duterte, senior officials, and others implicated in unlawful killings could also be held liable for crimes against humanity, which are serious offenses committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack on a civilian population. The numerous and seemingly organized deadly attacks on the publicly targeted group of drug suspects could amount to crimes against humanity, as defined by the International Criminal Court, of which the Philippines is a member.
As president, Duterte has a legal responsibility to publicly direct state security forces to end their campaign of extrajudicial executions of suspected drug dealers and users. The National Bureau of Investigation and the Ombudsman’s Office should impartially investigate the killings and seek prosecutions of all those responsible. The Philippine Congress should hold extensive hearings on the issue and adopt measures to prevent further killings. Donor countries to the Philippines should end all assistance to the Philippine National Police until the killings cease and meaningful investigations are undertaken, and they should consider redirecting that assistance to community-based harm reduction programs that are appropriate and effective.
“Duterte’s ‘war on drugs’ could more aptly be described as crimes against humanity targeting the urban poor,” Bouckaert said. “Whether local outrage, global pressure, or an international inquiry brings these killings to an end, someday they will stop and those responsible will be brought to justice.”
Selected Accounts from the Report
On the afternoon of October 14, 2016, four masked gunmen stormed the Manila home of Paquito Mejos, a 53-year-old father of five who worked as an electrician on construction sites. An occasional user of shabu, a methamphetamine, Mejos had turned himself in to local authorities two days earlier after learning he was on a “watch list” of drug suspects. The gunmen asked for Mejos, who was napping upstairs. “When I saw them with their handguns going upstairs,” a relative said, “I told them, ‘But he has already surrendered to the authorities!’ They told me to shut up, or I would be next.”
Two gunshots rang out. Police investigators arrived moments later and were assisted by the gunmen. In their report, the police referred to Mejos as “a suspected drug pusher” who “pointed his gun [at the police] but the police officers were able to shoot him first hitting him on the body causing his instantaneous death.” They said a shabu packet was found along with a handgun. “But Paquito never had a gun,” said his relative. “And he did not have any shabu that day.”
A barangay (neighborhood) official told Rogie Sebastian, 32, to surrender to the police because he was on the “watch list” as a drug user. He had given up drug use months earlier, so did not go. Two weeks later, three armed masked men wearing bulletproof vests arrived at his home in Manila and handcuffed him. “I could hear Rogie begging for his life from outside the room,” a relative said. “We were crying and the other armed man threatened to kill us as well.” A neighbor said: “I heard the gunshots. There were also uniformed cops outside, they did not go inside the house. But the three killers in civilian clothes came and went on a motorcycle without any interference from the uniformed cops.”
Five masked, armed men broke into a house in Bulacan province where Oliver Dela Cruz, 43, was playing cards. A relative said: “[W]e could see him kneeling in a surrendering position. The men grabbed him and slammed him into a concrete wall several times, and then they threw him … outside. We saw the shooting, we were just there. Oliver’s face was bleeding from being hit, and he was begging them for mercy when he was shot.”
After the shooting of Ogie Sumangue, 19, in Manila, uniformed police showed Sumangue’s relatives his body in the house, and a .45-caliber handgun next to his body. Family members said that Sumangue could not afford and did not possess a gun and therefore could not possibly have attempted to shoot at the police. “He cannot even pay the rent,” a relative said. “His sister paid the rent for him.”
Six masked armed men burst into a Manila home where a small group, including several teenagers, were watching television. The men arrested and beat drug suspects Aljon Mesa and Jimboy Bolasa, and then took them away on motorcycles. A half-hour later, after hearing from a uniformed policeman, relatives rushed to a nearby bridge to find Aljon and Bolasa’s bodies, both with gunshot wounds to the head, their hands tied with cloth. The gunmen were still at the scene, while uniformed police cordoned off the area. The police report, headed “Found Bodies,” claims that a “concerned citizen” alerted the police to the presence of two dead bodies.
A week after Aljon Mesa’s killing, 10 police officers, some in civilian clothes, arrested his brother Danilo Mesa and took him to the local barangay office. That evening, masked, armed men abducted him from the barangay office; shortly afterwards, his body was found under a bridge a block away. His relatives said that his entire head had been wrapped in packing tape, and his hands had been tied behind his back. He had been shot execution-style through the mouth.
Relatives of Edward Sentorias, 34, a jobless father of three killed by the police in Manila, said they had no hope for an investigation of the police: “I saw one of the police go inside with an aluminum briefcase.… [He took] out the gun and some [shabu] sachets, and placed them there [by Sentorias’ body]. I went back to where I was, and was totally shocked. I couldn’t even complain. If we go complain, what is our chance against the authorities?”