Drug-war killings review found ‘too little, too late’

AT GROUND LEVEL - Satur C. Ocampo - The Philippine Star

Yes, there are valid reasons why human rights advocates, lawyers’ groups and critics of the Duterte administration’s “war on drugs” found inadequate – after a long wait – the Department of Justice’s release last Wednesday of an information table (matrix) on the review of 52 death cases resulting from police operations.

The matrix consists of docket numbers, names of suspects(victims), dates and places of the incidents and the DOH-led review panel’s observations on each case. In many cases, the panel found policemen couldn’t support their claims that the victims fired guns first, and pointed out that the victims were shot multiple times.

Among the lawyers’ groups, the National Union of People’s Lawyers (NUPL) noted that the “paltry number [of cases] and the inordinate lateness” of the review indicated that the DOJ was only “going through the motions” of reviewing the cases previously investigated by the PNP Internal Affairs Service.

The Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG) observed that the review “fails to provide a comprehensive and meaningful assessment of the real extent of the violations of human rights committed during the implementation… of the ‘war on drugs’.” It doesn’t provide “useful information to assist in making the offenders accountable,” FLAG added, “nor does it provide comfort or solace to the families of the victims.”

A legal group called Ideals, which has been aiding drug-war victims since 2016, remarked that the review was a “last-ditch effort to hide the fact that our [justice] system is unwilling and unable to sufficiently investigate and prosecute crimes against humanity.”

On its part, the Human Rights Watch senior researcher pointed out that the review of 52 cases out of thousands killed in the drug war “hardly qualifies as compliance” with the DOJ’s promise to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in June 2020.

To better appreciate these critical comments and the context of the DOJ panel review, let’s look back to what happened before.

On June 30, 2020, United Nations human rights chief Michelle Bachelet formally presented to the UNHRC’s 44th session her office’s comprehensive written report on the human rights situation in the Philippines. “Very serious” was how she described the findings on human rights violations, topped by extrajudicial killings (EJKs), both in the Duterte government’s “war on drugs” and counterinsurgency campaign.

Note: the Duterte government did not allow High Commissioner Bachelet nor her staff to enter the Philippines. She and her staff had to do their work from a neighboring country, with minimal cooperation of state agencies she had requested to provide information and data.

Bachelet enjoined the UNHRC to “remain active and vigilant” on the country’s human rights situation by mandating her office to continue its monitoring and reporting, and through technical cooperation to implement her report’s recommendations. Moreover, she urged a deeper international independent investigation on the Philippine situation – particularly because the enactment of the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020 heightened public concerns about the blurring of the distinctions between criticism, criminality and terrorism.

Representing the Philippine government, Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra then submitted a response to Bachelet’s report. He promised an investigation specifically of the cases of EJKs related to the anti-illegal drug campaign, citing the number of deaths at 5,655. (Per PNP official records, that number had risen to 6,191 by August.)

In February, speaking online before the UNHRC, Guevarra reported that a high-level review panel led by the DOJ had looked into 328 drug-war operations and submitted a report on them to President Duterte. He acknowledged that many police operatives had failed to follow standard protocols.

In late May, the panel felt optimistic it could move on faster when newly-named PNP Chief Gen. Guillermo Eleazar announced he would turn over to the DOJ the case records of 61 deaths resulting from police operations, which the PNP IAS had investigated and “volunteered for further review by the DOJ.” Apart from these cases, Eleazar said he would submit more – including cases in which policemen were cleared of wrongdoing because the victims’ relatives supposedly failed to cooperate.

President Duterte, however, interdicted Eleazar’s initiative. Invoking “national security” considerations, he said the government couldn’t release all the case records. Consequently, Eleazar was able to provide the DOJ only 52 of the 61 case records. These were the 52 cases covered by the matrix, issued after more than three months of review.

But Duterte’s move, it turned out, contravened a Supreme Court decision on April 3, 2018, when it directed the PNP to give the petitioners in the case access to the case files of persons killed in the drug-war operations. Categorically, the SC ruled that nothing in the case files involved national security, which Solicitor General Jose Calida, lawyer for the PNP, had raised as ground for objecting to the petition.

In a Malacañang briefing last Thursday, a DOJ review panel spokesman announced three things:

• The panel would continue looking into 6,000 more drug-war killings, but because it has only a few (8) months before Duterte’s term ends, Secretary Guevarra gave instructions to “concentrate on [cases in] certain urban areas;”

• The DOJ has been awaiting Malacañang’s permission to release the results of the review on the 328 cases mentioned by Guevarra in his message to the UNHRC in February; and

• The International Criminal Court (ICC) – which has authorized its prosecutor to conduct a full investigation of the killings and other human rights violations in the “war on drugs” – can have full access to the matrix on the 52 cases, since it has already been publicized.

However, President Duterte’s spokesperson said the full report on the 52 cases couldn’t be released to the public because the cases it covers are now under investigation by the NBI for case-buildup for criminal charges against any or all of 150 police officers who may be found responsible for the killings. The report, he added, is an exception to freedom of information.

So there…

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