– Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte and government officials are guilty of “social cleansing” under the guise of a war on drugs, advocates testified on Capitol Hill on Thursday.
“Duterte and other high officials of the land, having had to find a particular section of Philippine society worthy of elimination, have effectively put in place a de facto social cleansing policy whereby police and vigilantes are not only encouraged, but rewarded and forced to commit extrajudicial killings,” witness Ellecer Carlos told members of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission on Thursday.
The hearing on “The Human Rights Consequences of the War on Drugs in the Philippines” featured Carlos and two other witnesses from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. They testified on reports of extralegal killings in the Philippines as part of President Duterte’s “Operation Plan Tokhang,” the war on drugs.
The witnesses alleged that high-ranking officials in the Philippine government are complicit in human rights abuses where police officers and vigilantes, who may be working for and paid by the police, track down and kill those involved in the drug trade, with evidence present of other abuses like torture.
The targets are disproportionately poor people. “The vast majority of victims of drug-related killings come from the poorest segments of Philippine society,” Matthew Wells, senior crisis advisor at Amnesty International, stated in his written testimony before the commission.
Heads of poor families may be involved in the drug trade as a way to escape poverty, Wells said, or some may use methamphetamines to help stay awake and energized on a long work day. “The death of a breadwinner often puts families in a more precarious position, at times compounded by police officers stealing from them during crime scene investigations,” Wells said.
Duterte ran for office on a platform of taking strong action against the drug trade in the country, making shocking statements to underline his commitment to action.
“Forget the laws on human rights. If I make it to the presidential palace, I will do just what I did as mayor,” the BBC reported him saying. Duterte was previously the mayor of the city of Davao, where he made a name for himself as the “death squad mayor.”
“You drug pushers, hold-up men and do-nothings, you better go out. Because I’d kill you,” he said while running for president. “I’ll dump all of you into Manila Bay, and fatten all the fish there.”
Duterte was elected president in May of 2016. Since then “his rhetoric quickly became all too real” in the war on drugs, Wells stated in his testimony before the commission.
Police officers and vigilantes had killed over 7,000 persons in the drug trade from July, 2016 through January, 2017, according to numbers provided by the Philippine National Police.
While the authorities kept statistics for the first few months of the spike in drug-related deaths, they stopped providing transparency, Wells said. According to the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, there have been “blatant inconsistencies and a deliberate attempt to conceal the magnitude of the killings” in the war on drugs, Carlos said.
The killings allegedly undertaken by vigilantes were among the worst human rights problems in the country, the State Department noted in its most recent human rights report.
On Tuesday, Wells described how police officers are paid under-the-table for “encounters” with drug traffickers where “offenders are killed,” and that there is a pay scale for killing drug sellers and users. Vigilantes are also handed hit lists of suspects in the drug trade by police. They carry out the killings for the police, offering them some mode of cover.
Many of the killings are made at night, through home invasions or drive-by shootings. The “modus operandi” of the police is to barge in the door of a home of a suspect at night; in the encounter, the suspect is shot but the police can use the cover of darkness to claim that the suspect was the initial aggressor, Phelim Kine, deputy director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch, said.
More and more citizens have begun sleeping in the streets to be witnesses, taking video of the incidents to ensure that the truth is documented.
A Reuters investigation had uncovered “payments for killings” by police to vigilantes, and showed significant evidence that a “license to kill” had been granted from high levels of government, Wells said.
All this has been an “economy of murder created by the war on drugs, with the police at the center,” Wells said. And there is “scant accountability,” he said, as there have been no convictions of police officers in drug killings and the family members of those killed “face obstacle after obstacle” in seeking justice.
The testimony of a survivor of an extralegal killing, 29 year-old Efren Morillo, was also submitted to the record. Morillo is the lead petitioner before the Philippine Supreme Court in the first case against Operation Plan Tokhang.
Morillo described being at a friend’s house when five men and two women in civilian clothes arrived, armed with guns. They detained five members of the group and accused them of selling illegal drugs. Morillo recognized some of the men as police officers in civilian clothes. The armed men then shot the five civilians.
The Philippine bishops have been outspoken against the increase in killings, referring to it as a “reign of terror” in a Jan. 30 pastoral letter.
“If we neglect the drug addicts and pushers we have become part of the drug problem, if we consent or allow the killing of suspected drug addicts, we shall also be responsible for their deaths,” the bishops said.
“We cannot correct a wrong by doing another wrong,” they said. “A good purpose is not a justification for using evil means. It is good to remove the drug problem, but to kill in order to achieve this is also wrong.”
Duterte, however, responded to the letter by saying “You Catholics, if you believe in your priests and bishops, you stay with them,” while adding that “if you want to go to heaven, then go to them. Now, if you want to end drugs … I will go to hell, come join me.”
Duterte has also “openly threatened human rights defenders” and “attacked the media and lawyers who have represented the families of extrajudicial killings,” Carlos said on Tuesday.
Catholic priests have also offered their churches as “sanctuaries” for those who believe they are on the police hit lists, the Guardian reported in February.