House drug war probe highlights police inaction faced by EJK victims

Cristina Chi - Philstar.com
House drug war probe highlights police inaction faced by EJK victims
This undated photo shows people lighting candles to protest killings under the Duterte administration's 'war on drugs.'
The STAR / Miguel de Guzman, File

MANILA, Philippines — The House of Representatives on Tuesday began its first hearing into the extra-judicial killings that resulted from the Duterte administration’s drug war, allowing select relatives of victims and human rights lawyers to testify for the first time in the lower chamber about the scale of government inaction during the former president’s brutal six-year campaign against illegal drugs.

Victims’ families told House lawmakers that for years, they have borne the brunt of authorities’ inaction and apparent reluctance to fully cooperate in their quest for justice, pushing them to bring their case to the International Criminal Court (ICC), also known as the court of last resort.

Sheerah Escudero, whose brother, Ephraim, was found dead in Pampanga with his head wrapped in tape in 2017, said that she recalled approaching police officers who refused to provide them with information or evidence about Ephraim’s demise. 

“Wala kaming nakuhang kahit anong info. They never showed us the evidence. Possible din na isa sa mga evidence noon makakapaglink talaga na police ang gumawa. (Pero) hindi sila nakipagcooperate saamin,” Escudero said. 

(We didn't get any information at all. They never showed us the evidence. It's possible that some of the evidence could really link the police to the crime. [But] they didn't cooperate with us.)

Llore Pasco, a mother of two drug war victims and a volunteer for human rights group Rise Up for Life and for Rights, also recounted the difficulties she faced in trying to retrieve her sons' bodies with little cooperation from authorities.

"Pinagpasa pasahan kami bago ko nakita ang labi ng aking mga anak... Noong nagdown kami ng P50,000, halos nabubulok na ang katawan ng aking mga anak dahil sa di maayos na pagkakalagay ng formaline sa kanilang mga katawan," Pasco said.

(We were passed around before I saw the bodies of my children... When we paid P50,000, my children's bodies were almost decomposed because formalin was not properly administered to their bodies.)

Pattern of state-sponsored killings 

Lawyer Neri Colmenares, co-counsel of the families of extra-judicial killings victims in the ICC case, said that among the evidence that they will present if the ICC goes to trial is the pattern of evidence that indicate the killings were state-sponsored.

Colmenares said that there was not only public villification of the victims, but the killings were also "so brazen that they took place in public, as if perpetrators were not afraid of being caught or accosted by authorities." 

The Bayan Muna chairperson also pointed out the government's apparent lack of interest to seriously investigate drug war killings, citing data that shows only 52 out of over 6,000 killings admitted by the police have been so far investigated. 

Citing a rule in the Philippine National Police's manual, Colmenares pointed out that if someone dies in the course of a police operation, there should always be an inquest or investigation.

This is regardless if the suspect had fought back, Colmenares said, citing the notorious "nanlaban" argument wielded by cops during violent anti-illegal drug operations. 

Among several recommendations to more effectively investigate drug war-related deaths, Commission on Human Rights Chairperson Richard Palpal-latoc said the committee should consider enacting a law that will require mandatory autopsies to be conducted. 

Lawyer Kristina Conti, another co-counsel for drug war victims, supported this suggestion, saying that these should also be conducted by an independent expert. 

"We are talking about killings committed by police themselves. In some cases, the very same policemen will be investigating the same crimes. It is terrifying to victims to see the perpetrators as investigators," Conti added.

Palpal-latoc added that the PNP has often refused to provide the rights body with official documents related to its drug war probe, which the CHR chair said was part of their mandate to conduct investigations.

The CHR chair said that the PNP officers invoke the data privacy law.

Need for ICC cooperation

While Rep. Bienvenido Abante Jr. (Manila, 6th District), chair of the House human rights panel, made sure to clarify that the committee will not “in any way” work with the ICC, both Pasco and Escudero appealed to the government to work with the international tribunal, which they both said gave them their best hope for a fair trial.

"I've been going to places in search of justice and hope for Ephraim's two little boys. It's been almost seven years now and there is still no justice. Kanino pa kami lalapit? (Who else can we turn to?)" Escudero said, adding that this was why her family had hopes when ICC announced its drug war probe in 2018.

"Ang hirap mag-imbestiga sa Pilipinas lalo na kung may agam-agam o paniniwala na pulis din ang may gawa," she added.

(It's difficult to investigate in the Philippines, especially when there are doubts or beliefs that the police are involved.)

Escudero asked Congress and the president to work with the ICC, saying that their clamor is for "investigations and trials that are fair, thorough and comprehensive."

"We want truth and accountability. Please help our family heal," Escudero added.

Rep. Dan Fernandez, chair of the House public order and safety committee, asked Pasco if she no longer had any trust in the justice system

"Nawalan na kami ng tiwala. Seven years na mula noong namatay mga anak ko. Hanggang ngayon wala pa kaming hustisyang nakamit. Kailan kami kakamit ng hustisya? Kaya kami dumulog sa inyong committee para tulungan kami na ipursue ang case na finile namin sa ICC kasama ng lahat ng biktima na tinanggalan ng karapatang pantao," Pasco said.

(We have lost trust. It's been seven years since my children died. Until now, we have not achieved justice. When will we attain justice? That's why we sought help from your committee to assist us in pursuing the case we filed with the ICC, along with all the victims who have been deprived of their human rights.)

Escudero said that just months before her brother was killed allegedly during police's anti-illegal drugs operations, she wrote for her school paper about the case of 17-year-old Kian de los Santos, another drug war victim, whose death was caught on CCTV.

"I was an aspiring journalist writing about social issues, then a month after we were also in the newspaper, similar to what happened to Kian."

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