President Rodrigo Duterte says he would ‘prepare his defense’ for the investigation when he returns to Davao City at the end of his six-year term. (File/AP)
MANILA: Experts on Tuesday questioned the Philippines government’s decision to probe the role of 154 police officers in President Rodrigo Duterte’s controversial war on drugs after an initial review suggested they could be criminally liable over their conduct in 52 deadly crackdowns.
The move is seen as a rare admission by the state of abuse that took place under Duterte’s watch. He said on Monday that he would “prepare his defense” for the International Criminal Court’s investigation into the drug war when he returns to Davao City at the end of his six-year term.
But experts such as Rikard Jalkebro, associate professor at the Emirate Diplomatic Academy, said while the justice department’s move appears to send a message to the international community, especially the ICC, it could also be part of Duterte’s political campaign for the coming 2022 elections.
“It sends a message to the international community and the ICC as well that the Philippines is now taking it seriously,” Jalkebro, who is also an expert on the Philippines, told Arab News.
The 76-year-old president has faced intense criticism from the international community over his drug war. According to official figures, more than 6,000 people have been killed during “legitimate drug operations” since Duterte took office in 2016.
However, 2020 figures from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights indicate at least 8,663 people were killed under the Duterte administration’s war on drugs while human rights groups say the figure is three times higher.
“By backing the internal investigations within the Philippine National Police and the Drug Enforcement Agency, they are conducting a review and trying to figure out where things went wrong and if they have gone wrong,” Jalkebro said.
He explained that if the internal reviews and reports reveal that nothing out of the ordinary has happened and it was a case of rogue officers taking the law into their own hands, “Then they can at least say: ‘OK, we did a review, and we did not find any ground for these statements.’”
“At the same time, they can deny any claims made by the ICC,” Jalkebro said, adding that it could also be Duterte’s move to “preempt something but also just to make sure, seeing that he will not have immunity (after his term).”
On Saturday, Duterte said he would no longer run for vice president in next year’s national elections and would retire from politics at the end of his term, saying his decision was based on the public’s wishes.
“As he has now officially pulled out of the election, he could again broaden his support among the people, and perhaps they can sway the opinion polls … because he is still the president and will take everything on as his responsibility. So that could also be a political play in that sense,” Jalkebro said.
“Then it would be a very good point to (for them to say) he is back by popular demand; he can not retire because he needs to do this for the Filipino people.”
On Monday, the Philippines’ Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra told reporters that the investigation into the drug war would not end with the 154 policemen seen to be liable for the death of 52 drug suspects.
“Quite a significant move by the DoJ, considering the government has not acknowledged anything,” Jalkebro said.
“They are obviously aware that the police have not acted on their own and they have been ordered to do so. I think it is to shake up the higher-ranking people involved — the police chiefs and the Duterte administration in general. Because in one way or another, everyone in the administration has blood on their hands. It is not just Duterte.”
Dindo Manhit, from the Stratbase ADR Institute for Strategic and International Studies, agrees.
“This investigation against the 154 policemen is good,” he said. “Though the question is why now? Is it a sign that the DOJ leadership would like to project a more independent position and preempt the ICC move?”
Duterte, in a recorded message that aired Monday night, said he would return to Davao when his term ends to prepare for the ICC probe.
“They want me to go home to Davao. I will wait for those who keep talking about the case. I will prepare for my defense in the ICC,” Duterte said, as he reiterated that the ICC does not have jurisdiction over the Philippines.
He also repeated his commitment to back up the policemen who will be facing charges in court “for doing their job and implementing the government’s campaign against illegal drugs.”
“There are many policemen our there and even officials, who are scared about what will happen to me. I told them, ‘You are all hard-headed. Did I not tell you anything that you did in the prosecution of the drug war? For as long as you obey the law, I will protect you. It will be on me. I will answer for it.’” Duterte said.