Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has issued a fresh reminder as to why his murderous “drug war” has earned United Nations and International Criminal Court scrutiny. Duterte issued a televised death threat against detained drug suspects in Cebu province last week. “You know if I were you guys in Cebu, stay in jail. You want to live longer? Stay in jail,” Duterte said, adding, “Do not go out of that facility. It would not be healthy for you.”
The targets of Duterte’s threat have good reason to be afraid. The brutal lesson of the anti-drug campaign that Duterte launched on June 30, 2016 is that people he threatens with summary execution often end up dead in suspicious police “buy-bust” operations, or at the hands of unidentified gunmen. That campaign has targeted mainly urban slum dwellers and resulted in the deaths of more than 12,000 suspected drug dealers and users, including children, by police and police-backed vigilantes.
Duterte’s suggestion that drug suspects who are behind bars are safe from summary execution is perilously wrong. Last year both the National Bureau of Investigation and the Philippine Senate concluded that Philippine National Police officers had committed “premeditated murder” when they shot to death Albuera Mayor Rolando Espinosa Sr. in a Manila jail cell in 2016. Those 18 police officers were released on bail in June 2017 and subsequently returned to active duty. Meanwhile, the country’s new Bureau of Corrections Director Ronald Dela Rosa, who retired last month as director general of the Philippine National Police, exhorted prison guards earlier this month at Manila’s New Bilibid Prison to summarily execute imprisoned “drug lords.”
Duterte’s spin doctors may try to deflect criticism about this latest threat by asserting that he was “joking.” But these kinds of comments send a clear message to police officers and other security force members that certain kinds of crimes not only can be committed with impunity, but might even draw praise from the president. They should also send a message to the International Criminal Court of the dire need for a preliminary examination into the killings and to the UN for a separate international inquiry.