Scrutinizing the drug war
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - April 8, 2019 - 12:00am

Human rights advocates have won a legal victory in the Supreme Court’s ruling directing the government to provide private petitioners records of police anti-narcotics operations under President Duterte.

The records can allow the petitioners to scrutinize each case for indications of excessive use of force by the police, frame-ups, cover-ups or other anomalies in waging the war on illegal drugs.

Each case is the length of about five bond papers with the report typewritten in single space, Philippine National Police (PNP) deputy spokesperson Lt. Col. Kimberly Molitas told The Chiefs last week on Cignal TV’s One News.

The PNP says it has submitted all the documents, in compliance with the Supreme Court (SC) order. It’s still unclear which party will shoulder the cost of producing copies of the voluminous documents. Also, let’s hope petitioners Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG) and CenterLaw have enough people to comb through the files.

What might be discerned from the records? One noteworthy point, according to reports, is that narrations of alleged cases of resisting arrest appear to adhere to a template.

Molitas told us that in fact there are templates for filing police reports. Having covered the police beat for years, I believe her. One of the reasons, left unsaid by the PNP, is that there are cops who may be good in detective work but not in writing reports, especially in English, so they do rely on templates or at least copy other reports.

A five-page report may leave out some details, but will contain a lot of useful information – the trajectory of the bullet, the range of the gunshot, bruises on the body, details of the arrest – which can indicate if a fatality in an anti-narcotics operation was summarily executed.

The report should also indicate if the case was submitted to a prosecutor for inquest, which is required for any death under investigation.

Only a prosecutor can say if the killing of a suspect by a cop is justified and no charges should be filed in connection with the death. There are reports that this procedure was widely disregarded at the height of Oplan Tokhang and Double Barrel, with cops clearing themselves and declaring cases of deaths under investigation closed.

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For human rights advocates, a possible downside in the SC ruling is that it can be added to the arguments of the government that the Philippine legal system is working. This means there is no reason for the International Criminal Court (ICC) to assume jurisdiction over complaints against President Duterte for crimes against humanity in the conduct of the war on drug.

The SC ruling could become Exhibit B for the defense before the ICC, in case the Duterte administration bothers to participate in the proceedings, which is unlikely. Exhibit A is the conviction by the Caloocan Regional Trial Court of three policemen for the summary execution of teenage drug suspect Kian Loyd de los Santos.

The fact that the likes of FLAG and its chairman Jose Manuel “Chel” Diokno reposed trust in the SC can be used as an argument that the Philippine judicial system, flawed as it may be, is functioning, so there is no excuse for the ICC to step in.

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We don’t know if there is a conscious effort on the part of the Duterte administration to show that it is cooperating with human rights advocates and recalibrating the war on drugs along this line.

Duterte has always been unapologetic about his brutal war and has promised that the campaign will be as relentless throughout the rest of his presidency.

But his second PNP chief, Oscar Albayalde, is no robot like Bato dela Rosa. Albayalde appears to be considering his place in PNP history, and the possibility of being indicted later in connection with drug killings.

Albayalde has picked former United Nations peacekeepers educated in the United States as the voices of the PNP – spokesman Col. Bernard Banac and his deputy, Igorot nurse-turned-cop Molitas – to explain the details of the recalibrated war on drugs. Banac replaced another former UN peacekeeper, Harvard-educated Brig. Gen. Benigno Durana.

Albayalde took over the PNP at the height of the uproar over the killing of teenagers in the drug war.

Today drug-related killings continue, but on a lesser scale, with police reports about the armed encounters or the suspects resisting arrest a bit more finessed. The “mummies” are gone – victims of execution with bound wrists and their heads wrapped in layers of plastic and packing tape.

Like Molitas, Banac appears sensitive to the challenges of balancing human rights issues with the realities of law enforcement and the weaknesses of the Philippine criminal justice system.

Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra, whose department supervises the prosecution service, also does not have the pugnacity of his predecessor Vitaliano Aguirre II, and can better argue that there are genuine efforts to uphold the rule of law under the Duterte administration.

We don’t know if the stance of these officials on human rights or the SC ruling were influenced by the ICC complaint. Normally, even being named in a complaint for crimes against humanity can bring shame not just to an individual but also to his relatives, and may put them on an international watch list.

Even if the Philippines has withdrawn from the ICC, the next administration might restore the country’s membership. Also, almost all the killings under review took place before the withdrawal, so the ICC may still decide that it has jurisdiction over the complaint.

This can happen only if a state party to the Rome Statute is unable or unwilling to investigate the alleged crimes. The SC ruling on the PNP records can be trotted out as one of the proofs that this is not the case under Duterte’s watch.

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Still, it’s a victory for human rights advocates that even the basic details of police anti-narcotics operations can now be accessed by concerned groups.

As Molitas has admitted, the release of the records could compromise live cases, endanger witnesses, and deter others from cooperating with the PNP in nailing down drug traffickers.

Lawyer Gilbert Andres, deputy executive director of CenterLaw, stressed to “The Chiefs” last week that their group was not opposed in principle to the battle against the drug menace.

All they want, Andres said, is to see that the battle is waged within the bounds of the law.

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