THE International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague is opening an initial probe into allegations of crimes against humanity by President Rodrigo Duterte, his spokesman said Thursday, at the same time rejecting accusations of mass murder arising out of his war on drugs.
Lawyer Jude Sabio filed the main complaint against Duterte at the world’s only permanent war crimes court nearly 10 months ago, alleging the President’s anti-crime crackdown has caused some 8,000 deaths.
The Hague-based tribunal’s prosecutor recently notified the Philippine embassy there it was opening a “preliminary examination” on the case, Palace spokesman Harry Roque Jr. told reporters Thursday.
The preliminary examination will determine whether or not there is basis to conduct a formal investigation against Duterte, Roque explained.
“It is not a complaint, it is a communication because there are no charges yet, so it emanated from the communication filed by individuals alleging crimes against humanity in the Philippines,” Roque said.
Roque said Duterte welcomed the move because it would give him the opportunity to defend his name and his anti-drug war.
“The President has made it clear that he will communicate, that he will assert the legality of the war against drugs as a valid exercise of sovereign powers and therefore the element required for a crime against humanity is lacking,” Roque said.
“We view of course this decision of the prosecutor as a waste of time and resources,” he added, saying Duterte merely employed “lawful use of force” against threats to the state and its citizens.
‘Domestic enemies of the State’
Roque said administration critics were behind the ICC case.
“Obviously, this is intended to embarrass the President but the President is a lawyer, he knows what the procedures are. The President has said that if need be, he will argue his case personally before the ICC,” he said.
“He wants to be in Court and put the prosecutor on the stand to ask, ‘who prodded you to proceed the preliminary examination?’ Because it is the suspicion of the President that it is, of course, the domestic enemies of State behind this,” Roque said.
The ICC spokesman contacted by Agence France-Presse would not confirm the information, and there was no immediate response to inquiries from the prosecutor’s office.
Duterte won a landslide victory in the 2016 elections largely on a pledge to kill tens of thousands of criminals and eradicate drugs in Philippine society.
He has since overseen a crackdown that has left nearly 4,000 drug suspects dead at the hands of the police. The authorities are also investigating more than 2,000 other cases of “drug-related” killings by unknown suspects.
Rights groups put the total number of drug war deaths as at least twice the official figure, many of them committed by shadowy vigilantes.
Police insist they only shot armed suspects in self-defense.
Sabio, the lawyer behind the suit, said he was “elated” and “vindicated” by the prosecutor’s action, adding the court usually threw out many other complaints brought before it.
“This is a big step because finally the system of death squad killings created by Duterte… can be investigated,” Sabio said, adding he hoped it would lead to Duterte’s arrest.
But Roque said the Philippine mission would tell the court it had no jurisdiction over the case because the tribunal was intended as a “court of last resort” and the Philippine courts were fully functioning.
“No one should claim a victory because we are only in the stage of preliminary examination,” Roque said, accusing the political opposition of being behind Sabio’s suit.
The Palace official said Duterte welcomed the development.
“He’s sick and tired of being accused of committing crimes against humanity,” Roque said.
‘Duterte not above the law’
At the Senate, Duterte critic Sen. Antonio Trillanes 4th said the decision of the ICC to begin a preliminary examination on the anti-drug campaign of Duterte was a clear message to the latter that he was not above the law.
Trillanes in a statement said the decision of the ICC was a welcome development for the families of the victims of the bloody “war on drugs.”
The senator and Magdalo Party-list Rep. Gary Alejano filed a supplemental complaint against Duterte before the ICC in The Hague, Netherlands, to support the complaint filed by Sabio.
Akbayan party-list Rep. Tomasito Villarin said: “It is a welcome development and gives hope to thousands of EJK (extrajudicial killing) victims that finally justice will be served. This will hold President Duterte accountable as well as gives us an opportunity to implead other enablers of EJKs including Presidential Spokesman Harry Roque.”
Representatives Robert Ace Barbers of Surigao del Norte and Rodel Batocabe of Ako Bicol party-list were confident the President would come out of the ICC probe unscathed.
“There is nothing to hide in this campaign. I’m sure that after the investigation, the President will be vindicated and [it]will reveal that the deaths happened under legitimate police operations,” Barbers said in a text message.
“The ICC should investigate the drug lords in the country for their crimes against humanity, not the President. Anyway, the President has said that he is not afraid of any investigation since he has nothing to hide anyway. What is clear is that the President was elected with a mandate to get rid the country of illegal drugs—a program that has the overwhelming support of the people,” Batocabe said.
No politics, please
Former human rights chief Loretta Ann Rosales cautioned against using the ICC process as a political tool, saying the filing of a complaint was “just the beginning of a rigorous process of judicial determination.”
“This context will require significant investment of the ICC’s time and resources in order to gather the voluminous evidence necessary to bring the charges forward, hold a trial, convict and punish the concerned persons. There is no room for politics in that process. All sides should therefore refrain from framing this process to suit vested political ends. Not for one moment should anyone use the ICC, and for this particular case, as tool for propaganda and deal-making,” she said in a statement.
AFP, RALPH U. VILLANUEVA AND LLANESCA T. PANTI