Family cries out: Pursue justice for drug war crimes

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

 “The gravest matters to the international community – crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide – are the hardest and slowest to pursue.

“Those who are most responsible are the least likely to face justice, for the same reason: their power. Legal processes are inevitably politicized and imperfect.

“Even when justice can be achieved, it cannot revive the dead, or erase their pain, or wipe away the trauma of survivors.

“Yet families want, and societies need, truth and accountability – albeit slow, flawed and partial. It can bring a kind of resolution, if not comfort.

“It helps to place a marker in history, reestablishing a line that humans must not cross.”

The above quotes are from a recent editorial of The Guardian. It’s a cogent assessment of how such grave crimes have been handled, whether through their successful or failed investigations and litigations, either by independent international tribunals or the International Criminal Court (ICC), established under a treaty called the Rome Statute.

These observations remind us of the context of the ongoing dispute between Philippine government officials and the ICC Prosecutor over the latter’s move to continue investigating the extrajudicial killings and other human rights violations allegedly committed in the Duterte administration’s “war on drugs.” The ICC Pre-Trial Chamber had authorized the probe, based on the submission by previous Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda that there was probable cause to deem these acts as constituting crimes against humanity. Upon the Duterte government’s request, however, the probe was suspended last year.

This week Solicitor General Menardo Guevarra – secretary of justice under Duterte – stated that the government will oppose the probe in case the Pre-Trial Chamber decides to pursue the investigation, as requested by ICC Prosecutor Karim Khan.

“Regardless of the Pre-Trial Chamber’s ruling,” Guevarra said, “the Philippine government will avail itself of all legal remedies, both domestic and international, even as it vigorously pursues its own investigation and prosecution of crimes committed in relation to the government’s so-called war on drugs, all within the framework of our legal and judicial system.”

The Marcos Jr. government submitted a report to the ICC on Sept. 8, justifying its refusal to cooperate. Khan then made the following comments:

• There is no provision in the Rome Statute for a State to challenge the resumption of an investigation on the grounds that ICC lacks jurisdiction or that the crimes sought to be probed are not grave enough. The government request to deny the probe is not supported by fact or law.

• The crimes his office seeks to probe are “serious crimes committed against civilians [including children], which demand investigation and prosecution.”

• The government has not substantiated criminal investigations of killings related to the war on drugs in Davao City, including those by so-called vigilantes, and torture.

• The Justice Department’s Inter-Agency Review Panel “falls short of comprising such tangible, concrete and progressive investigative steps.” Investigations conducted are “overwhelmingly focused” on low-ranking police officers, with no apparent probe of higher-level perpetrators, and are framed as “isolated instances” without wider inquiry into patterns of conduct or underlying policy.

• The Philippine government has shown no effort to pursue leads or to otherwise establish a “firm basis for investigation or prosecution.” That failure “speaks to the need for an impartial investigation by the (ICC) prosecution.”

Solicitor General Guevarra alleges that the murder incidents the ICC seeks to probe do not constitute “crimes against humanity” as they supposedly do not qualify as an “attack” against the civilian population. They weren’t in furtherance of a state or organizational policy, he added.

The situation in the country, he argued, is inadmissible under Article 17 of the Rome Statute because the complaints filed before the ICC were already being investigated and prosecuted by the proper state agencies. (Perhaps the relatives who filed the complaints can comment on this.)

The excuse of Justice Secretary Jesus Crispin Remulla is that preliminary investigations are still being undertaken by prosecutors because the new administration has just been in office for a few months, and so they are still gathering evidence and waiting for more witnesses to come forward. “We are not stopping,” was what he told reporters.

Meantime, there’s the family of Ephraim Escudero, an 18-year-old victim who left behind two small sons when he was killed in 2017. Writing to the ICC Pre-Trial Chamber on Sept. 6, his relatives recalled finding Ephraim’s body “wrapped in packaging tape, hands tied behind his back, head dotted with gunshot wounds and discarded at the side of the road in Angeles City.”

The family, who claim their quest for justice was ignored by the authorities, has made the letter public to support Khan’s request to pursue his investigations in the country. “He [Ephraim] was just one among thousands,” they say, referring to the over 6,300 killed in police operations as part of the “war on drugs,” as admitted by the government itself.

“We want the investigation to continue. Our two sweet boys [Ephraim’s sons] need the investigation to continue,” the family wrote. “In a country where the justice system is flawed and justice seems to be unattainable, the ICC process is like a glimpse of light for us that could lead us on the path to finding a touch of justice.”

“Our country’s soul has been damaged,” the family further wrote, “and this ICC process could help us to redeem our sense of truth and the value of human life.”

“Please help our family heal. Pursue the investigation of widespread killings under the ‘war on drugs’ in the Philippines,” the family pleaded to the ICC, decrying the “lethargic response” of the Marcos Jr. administration.

Many more families of victims, surely, have the same wish as the Escuderos.

“The grim and laborious work of seeking justice must begin at once,” as The Guardian said in its editorial: The pursuit of accountability “requires both urgency and tenacity – acting now, and persisting for years or decades.”

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