Protesters and residents hold lighted candles and placards at the wake of Kian Loyd delos Santos, a 17-year-old high school student, who was among the people shot dead last week in an escalation of President Rodrigo Duterte's war on drugs in Caloocan city, Metro Manila, Philippines August 25, 2017.

© 2017 Reuters

A Philippine court today filed murder charges against three police officers for the alleged summary execution of 17-year-old Kian Loyd delos Santos during an anti-drug operation on August 16 in Caloocan City, north of Manila. The killing of the teenager prompted mass protests.

Police anti-drug officers claimed they killed delos Santos after he fired on them during an anti-drug operation. However, both witness accounts and close circuit television camera footage indicate that police executed the unarmed youth while he was in police custody and dumped his body in an alley.

This case is a rare instance in which the Philippine justice system has taken genuine steps to prosecute anyone for killing suspected drug users and dealers during President Rodrigo Duterte’s “war on drugs,” launched in June 2016. The handful of previous prosecutions of police personnel implicated in the  thousands  of alleged drug war killings have not resulted in convictions.

In July, Philippine National Police (PNP) director-general, Ronald dela Rosa, reinstated 18 police officers facing homicide charges in the 2016 killing of Rolando Espinosa Sr., mayor of Albuera, on Leyte island. Dela Rosa announced that those officers, released on bail in June, “can be utilized again by the PNP for whatever assignment.” This, despite compelling evidence that the officers committed “premeditated murder” when they shot Espinosa to death in a Manila jail cell on November 5, 2016. Espinosa had surrendered to the police following public accusations by Duterte that he was a drug trafficker.

Accountability for drug war killings has been hobbled by the refusal of the PNP and the Philippine government to allow for an independent inquiry of those deaths. Dela Rosa has dismissed calls for such an investigation as “legal harassment” and said the demand “dampens the morale” of police officers. In August, Duterte vowed to pardon and promote any police personnel implicated in unlawful killings. Meanwhile, Foreign Secretary Alan Cayetano has sought to deter calls for accountability by deploying blatant falsehoods to whitewash the anti-drug campaign as lawful and rights-respecting.

These challenges underscore the need for a United Nations-led investigation to help provide accountability for all drug war victims, including Kian Loyd delos Santos.