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First Conviction of Officers in Philippines ‘Drug War’

Step Towards Justice Undercut by Charges Against Maria Ressa and Rappler

Mourners display a streamer during a funeral march for Kian delos Santos, a 17-year-old student who was shot during anti-drug operations in Caloocan, Metro Manila, Philippines August 26, 2017. © 2017 Reuters

A Philippine court on November 29 convicted three police officers for the murder of Kian delos Santos, a 17-year-old from Caloocan City in Metro Manila. His August 16, 2017 killing, which was caught on CCTV, enraged many Filipinos and underscored the brutality of President Rodrigo Duterte’s “war on drugs.”

The trial court sentenced police officers Arnel Oares, Jeremias Pereda, and Jerwin Cruz each to  up to 40 years in prison without eligibility for parole. The Philippine National Police initially asserted that delos Santos had fired at the officers, forcing them to shoot back – a claim that was debunked by footage of the suspects dragging the teenager into a dark alley where he was shot while kneeling on the ground.

The verdict is the first conviction of security force personnel for killings in the “war against drugs” that began after Duterte took office in June 2016. According to government statistics, at least 5,000 suspected drug dealers and users have been killed by the police claiming to be acting in self-defense. Investigations by Human Rights Watch and other groups, United Nations officials, and the media have shown a consistent pattern of police misconduct in anti-drug raids,  including planting evidence such as drugs and weapons on the bodies of suspects.

Duterte’s murderous “drug war,” which has resulted in the deaths of more than 12,000 people, has not spared children. Many have been killed by the police or state agents, either targeted or caught in the cross-fire as officers raided homes and communities. Most of these killings have not been investigated by the authorities.

The conviction of three officers for delos Santos’ death is a rare triumph of justice in the Philippines, and a warning to the police that violating basic rights may result in a long prison term.

Unfortunately, any optimism about justice in the drug war has been undercut by the announcement on November 29 of criminal charges against Maria Ressa and her publication, Rappler, which has published numerous investigative pieces about drug war killings. While the legal system took a small step forward, Duterte has sent a chilling message to journalists and human rights activists that they will be targeted for exposing his murderous campaign. Friends of the Philippines should make it clear to the president that the case against Ressa and Rappler should be dropped or there will be serious diplomatic consequences.

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