THE PHILIPPINES faced calls Friday to investigate its firebrand president after a self-confessed hitman alleged Rodrigo Duterte ordered a thousand opponents and suspected criminals murdered when he was a city mayor.
Edgar Matobato told a Senate inquiry on Thursday that he and a group of policemen and former rebels in the “Davao Death Squad” killed some 1,000 people in Davao City on Duterte’s orders from 1988 to 2013, with the politician himself shooting dead one of the victims.
“These are serious allegations and we take them seriously, we look into them,” said US State department deputy spokesman Mark Toner.
The allegations surfaced as the Senate investigated alleged extrajudicial killings in an ongoing anti-drug crackdown that has led to more than 3,000 deaths in Duterte’s first 72 days in office.
Critics say the alleged killings in Davao, where Duterte was mayor for more than 20 years, established a pattern that has spread nationwide under the new presidency.
The testimony of Matobato, 57, sheds light on “the similarity of the strategy adopted by the (Davao Death Squad) and that of the vigilantes that now roam the whole country,” Sen. Leila de Lima, who is leading the inquiry, said in a statement.
UN probe urged
US-based watchdog Human Rights Watch urged Manila to let United Nations investigators probe the hitman’s claims.
“President Duterte can’t be expected to investigate himself, so it is crucial that the United Nations is called in to lead such an effort,” the monitor’s Asia director Brad Adams said.
Sitting Philippine presidents are immune from criminal prosecution during their single, six-year term.
However, the Constitution provides for their impeachment and removal from office for “culpable violation of the Constitution, treason, bribery, graft and corruption, other high crimes, or betrayal of public trust.”
In 2001, president and populist ex-movie star Joseph Estrada was removed from office in a military-backed popular revolt, though an impeachment trial against him on graft charges was inconclusive.
During his election campaign at the start of the year, Duterte both admitted and denied involvement in the death squads.
He has so far ignored the latest allegations but Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre 2nd branded them as “lies and fabrications.”
‘Killings haven’t stopped’
Another Duterte ally, Senator Alan Cayetano, alleged Thursday that the inquiry was part of an opposition “Plan B” to unseat the president — a charge de Lima rejected.
However, she later suggested it might be time to “revisit” the presidential immunity doctrine.
“Otherwise there will be no solution but impeachment, people power, things like that,” she told reporters Thursday, asking: “What if we had elected a mass murderer, serial killer or rapist?”
Wilnor Papa, a campaign officer for the Manila office of Amnesty International, said rampant killings were the outcome of the failure of previous governments to bring criminal charges against Duterte.
“We are now seeing riding-in-tandem (motorcycle-borne assassins) like those that prowled the Davao streets in the late 1990s. The targets are not only drug syndicates. Even purse snatchers use them and they can target basically anyone,” he told AFP.
Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman urged Duterte Friday to name an independent fact-finding commission made up of retired judges to “determine the identities of the principals and perpetrators as well as of the victims.”
Catholic priest Amado Picardal, a critic from Davao, said the city assassins killed 1,424 people between 1998 and 2015, mostly in slums with the victims including 132 children and two journalists.
Most victims were either involved in illegal drugs or petty crimes. All were unarmed, did not fight back and were “shot in cold blood,” he wrote in the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines online newsletter.
“The killings have not stopped,” he said.
No protective custody
The fate of the former death squad member Matobato was uncertain on Friday as the Senate president, Duterte ally Aquilino Pimentel 3rd, refused to take him into protective custody.
His testimony was not related to the drug war killings being investigated, Pimentel told AFP, adding: “There’s even no showing that his life or safety is threatened.”
De Lima on Friday withdrew her request asking Pimentel to grant protective custody to Matobato.
“I am perplexed, disturbed, and extremely disappointed with the Senate President’s refusal to grant protective custody to Edgar Matobato,” de Lima said.
Senator Antonio Trillanes 4th disclosed that “good Samaritans” have provided temporary sanctuary to Matobato, and called Pimentel “heartless.”
“Even setting aside whatever legal technicality he used, it was heartless and reeks of political maneuvering to cover for President Duterte,” he claimed.
Human rights body speaks out
The Commission on Human Rights (CHR) had previously confirmed the existence of the Davao Death Squad.
“In light of the foregoing, the Commission concludes that in the period of 2005-2009, there was a systematic practice of extrajudicial killings, which can be attributed or attributable to a vigilante group or groups dubbed in the media as the Davao Death Squad,” a resolution from CHR stated.
“These killings were selective: the victim was usually involved or suspected to have been involved in some type of illegal activity. The manner of killing was also distinct: the assailants were usually motorcycle-riding gunmen,” the resolution stated.
CHR officials emphasized to The Manila Times the importance of protecting human rights as part of good governance.
The agency has been under fire from commentators and netizens for supposedly taking the side of crime suspects instead of victims.
CHR Commissioner Leah Armamento pointed out that the agency’s mandate is “enjoined in the Constitution.”
“We get our budget from the government but our mandate is to monitor the performance of the government, to make sure all government systems work for the people. It’s part of governance that human rights are respected,” Armamento told The Manila Times in an interview.
History will bear the CHR out, said Joel Sarmenta, the agency’s specialist for communications.
“There will have been no better time in the history of this republic to have a Commission on Human Rights than now,” Sarmenta said.