First of two parts
ON TOP of Bayani Arago’s desk at the Commission on Human Rights’ (CHR) National Capital Region (NCR) office is a pile of clippings now about an inch thick. The news reports, which Arago began collecting on July 1, tell stories of various police encounters that almost always end up with the same outcome: a drug suspect dead.
“Every day, I look at newspapers, and that’s all I see,” he said. “On Saturdays and Sundays, that’s what I read. So many are getting killed and the only thing I see are killings.”
The bodies are piling up as an apparent result of President Rodrigo Duterte’s anti-drug campaign, and Arago, officer-in-charge of the CHR office’s Protection and Monitoring Division, has made it his duty to keep track of the dead.
So far, he has identified at least 33 incidents related to the campaign that will be investigated motu proprio or on the commission’s own initiative. In addition, the agency has assigned priority to its investigation of six complaints filed by the surviving kin of those who had been killed.
The Commission on Human Rights, an independent office created by the Constitution, is the national human rights institution of the Philippines.
Since its formation in 1987, the CHR has investigated human-rights violations involving civil and political rights. It had investigated the 2007 forced disappearance of activist Jonas Burgos. In 2009, it looked into the summary killings associated with the Davao Death Squad linked to then Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte. More recently, CHR launched one of the first human-rights investigations into the accountability of companies for the adverse impacts of climate change.
A multitude of cases involving crime and security, and women and children has kept the Commission constantly occupied. But the unusually high number of drug deaths since Duterte assumed the presidency three weeks ago is now making CHR work double – perhaps even triple – time to accomplish its tasks.
At CHR-NCR, for instance, investigators typically work in teams specific to cases like rubout, torture, and unlawful arrest. These days, majority of the office’s 20 investigators are looking into the extrajudicial killings spawned by Duterte’s war against drugs.
Swamped with work
“Actually, our investigators are now almost working 24/7,” said CHR Commissioner Leah Armamento. “They cannot finish their reports quickly because there’s so much to do.”
Across the country, many of CHR’s regional offices have also shifted their attention on possible human-rights violations in the course of the new administration’s anti-drug campaign. In addition, CHR has formed a national task force specific to extrajudicial killings, which it expects to rise in number.
But apart from issuing statements and making recommendations, there may be little that CHR can do to ensure that justice is being served and the rights of the suspects respected.
Already burdened with all sorts of handicaps, including limited resources, it had even managed to irritate Duterte himself early on, prompting him to call CHR Chairman Jose Luis Martin ‘Chito’ Gascon an “idiot.”
In his June 30 inaugural speech, Duterte also pointedly asked Congress and CHR “to allow us a level of governance that is consistent to our mandate.” He said that as a lawyer and a former prosecutor, he knows the limits of his authority as president and what is legal and what is not.
Maim, not kill
The way Duterte’s war on drugs has unfolded, however, has raised questions on whether due process and fair trial are accorded suspected drug criminals, among other things.
Armamento for one said that police officials are supposed to follow standard procedures such as reading a suspect his or her Miranda rights, which include the right to remain silent, right to counsel, and the right to be informed. Likewise, in the event that a suspect poses threat, officers are instructed to maim or render him or her defenseless – but still breathing.
“You don’t shoot them in the head or chest, which is fatal,” said Armamento, “You don’t kill them because you have to surrender them to the court and then serve justice.”
What’s alarming for the CHR commissioner is that the police appear to be acting like “eager beavers,” wanting to prove to Duterte that they can comply with his directive to rid the streets of criminals.
“None in our legal system allows killing,” she said.
WITH ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY DAVINCI MARU