LET us put to one side, just for a moment, the question of whether the complaint filed with the International Criminal Court by lawyer Jude Josue Sabio, accusing President Rodrigo Duterte and 11 officials of mass murder and crimes against humanity, has any hope of succeeding. Whatever happens, the submission of a 77-page document titled “The situation of mass murder in the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte: the mass murderer” is, without doubt, a brave move that signals a heartening new boldness among those who oppose Duterte’s crazed war against drugs. Whether or not Duterte’s lethal campaign is thwarted, the complaint is a landmark case that will influence the way analysts—historians, political scientists, sociologists—in the future understand what is happening today. Sabio and his complaint, in other words, will not be ignored by history when it comes to judging the Duterte presidency.
If we tune out the howling histrionics of Duterte’s fanatical devotees on social media (the chorus line that never tires of repeating the cliché of conspiracy and destabilization plots), reactions have been a dismal mix of bombast, derision and cautious circumspection. Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre 2nd was quick to cast aspersions on Sabio, claiming the lawyer acted out of greed and self-interest; police chief Ronald ‘Bato’ dela Rosa went for the baldly crude denial: “There are no mass murders and there are no state-sponsored killings in the Philippines,” he said; and President Duterte’s predictably brusque dismissal relied on the notion that he is untouchable.
On the other hand, those who intuit the beginnings of a shift in public opinion on the President’s war on drugs—three-quarters of voters now disagree with the killing of suspects and only a quarter say they trust the police—view the complaint as rash and premature. But biding time in the hope that the public will be persuaded sooner rather than later to withdraw its support, doesn’t seem the right thing to do in the face of an unrelentingly callous administration with an insouciant disregard for truth and human life, and a death toll that is climbing ever upwards—it has risen to 9,000 by some counts.
On close reading, Sabio’s mass murder complaint turns on the startling key allegation that Duterte has been responsible for committing crimes against humanity since 1988. “The situation in the Philippines,” Sabio writes, “reveals a terrifying, gruesome and disastrous continuing commission of extra-judicial executions from the time President Duterte was the mayor of Davao City through his Davao Death Squad up to the time that he became the President after June 30, 2016 in his war on drugs at the national level.” Sabio claims that throughout this period no one has been held accountable for the killings and, even more damning, all those in a position of authority, from the police to local and national government, have demonstrated a gross inability or an unbending unwillingness to conduct investigations. The recent shambolic Senate inquiries are depicted as travesties. Duterte, he asserts, was the leader, financier, and mastermind of the Davao Death Squads in Davao City. Further, he accuses Duterte of having managed to institute and condone a “strategy or system of killing suspected criminals” with there being “no distinction between police drug operations resulting in deaths and vigilante killings.”
Sabio’s claims are built on the bedrock of sources that have now become familiar to us all and are accessible to us all for fact-checking. There is the blog of a priest, Fr. Amado Picardal, who kept a meticulous record of Davao Death Squad killings; local and international newspaper reports; findings from the Philippine Commission on Human Rights, field work by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International; and, most explosive of all, the sworn testimonies of the self-confessed killers Edgar Matobato, whom Sabio represents as defense counsel, and Matobato’s superior, former policeman Arturo Lascañas. Between these two assassins, a hundred or so people have been murdered. Then there are Duterte’s own words, his homicidal incitements to mass violence and murder which Sabio believes reveal a pathological mental state.
Tallying up extra-judicial murders with any degree of precision will always prove to be fiendishly difficult. Police estimates and murder categories, Sabio has found, are as changeable as the weather. Throughout December 2016, “deaths under investigation” was the police designation of choice for killings by unknown hitmen. By March 2017, the label was scrapped in favor of “murder cases under investigation”. Both sound like euphemisms. At any rate, the total number of drug-related killings stood at 7,000at the time of his writing. Taking that figure as a benchmark, Sabio reckons that if the killings continue unabated to the end of Duterte’s term, which is what Duterte has vowed, around 72,000 people will have been slaughtered.
It could very well take years to appreciate the Sabio document and its place in history. If and when warrants of arrest are issued, Duterte may no longer be President or may have even passed away. Take for example the case known as Aberca v Ver. In 1983, a group of human rights lawyers led by José W. Diokno and Rene Saguisag brought a suit against some of the most ruthless members of the dictator Marcos’ state security forces. Acting on behalf of torture victims, the lawyers accused General Fabian Ver, Lieutenant Colonel Panfilo Lacson and others of gross human rights violations. A handful of years later, by which time Marcos had been deposed, lived in exile and was near death, the Supreme Court found in favor of the victims. The ruling that was handed down is today hailed as a clear indictment of the Marcos dictatorship. “In times of great upheaval or of social and political stress, certain basic rights and liberties are immutable and cannot be sacrificed to the transient needs or imperious demands of the ruling power. The rule of law must prevail, or else liberty will perish.”
Jude Sabio’s complaint tells the world that his country is in the grip of a remorseless President who is quite possibly unhinged, of craven, corrupt, morally bankrupt politicians and lawmakers who operate with impunity, of contorted thinking, and of an evil terror. This extraordinary document will make it more difficult to airbrush away the cruelty and the blood.
For now, Duterte can still think he is accountable to no one. But there is no escaping the judgment of history.