Davao Death Squad: What ever happened to the investigations?
MANILA, Philippines – The presidential bid of Rodrigo Duterte successfully hinged on a vision of a peaceful and crime-free Philippines.
Throughout the campaign period, the president-elect did not hold back in his tirades against criminals before huge crowds of supporters. After all, in a country where people need to always be on guard to avoid being a victim, a promise to suppress crime in 3 to 6 months is music to the ear. (READ: Dissecting and weighing Duterte’s anti-crime strategy)
But what got the ire of most people, however, were Duterte's alleged human rights violations, specifically reported extrajudicial killings.
Duterte has also constantly been haunted by the shadow of the Davao Death Squad (DDS) – a vigilante group that international human rights groups alleged to have carried out extrajudicial killings when Duterte was mayor of Davao City.
Such allegations were hurled at Duterte even before his presidential candidacy. He, however, has constantly denied any involvement with the vigilante group, even challenging his critics to directly file a case against him. (READ: Duterte: ‘Am I the death squad? True’)
Duterte even pointed out, in one campaign sortie, that Senator-elect and former justice secretary Leila de Lima failed to file a case against him.
As Commission on Human Rights (CHR) chairperson then, De Lima initiated a probe into the Davao City mayor’s involvement with the DDS, which has been accused of carrying out at least 1,000 summary killings.
In 2012, CHR released a resolution stating that it found “probable cause” and recommended that the Office of the Ombudsman investigate the “possible administrative and criminal liability” of Duterte in relation to the numerous killings under his watch as Davao City mayor.
Tuesday, June 28, marks the fourth year since the CHR resolution on the DDS was released. What has happened since?
CHR findings on DDS
In 2009, CHR conducted public hearings in Davao City on the killings between 2005 to 2009 attributed to the DDS.
It identified 206 deaths attributable to the DDS within this period – with 157 victims shot.
At least 107 victims between 2005 to 2009 had records or were suspected to have been involved in illegal activities. However, there were several instances of mistaken identity.
A report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) in 2009 identified Jaypee Larosa as a victim of mistaken identity.
The 20-year-old was gunned down on July 17, 2008 by “three men in dark jackets who had arrived on a motorcycle" while he was in a neighbor Internet cafe.
However, according to witnesses, one gunman was overheard saying in Filipino, “Son of a bitch, this is not the one.” Larosa, a young man with no criminal record and who lived in one of Davao City's quiet residential neighborhoods, was reportedly mistaken for a suspected robber.
The roster of victims also included minors, including 3 of Clarita Alia's 4 sons.
Alia narrated to HRW that her 4 sons – 18-year-old Richard, 17-year-old Christopher, 14-year-old Bobby, and 15-year-old Fernando – were killed one after another between July 2001 and April 2007.
CHR also found a “distinct pattern” of killings – victims “usually involved or suspected to have been involved” in illegal activities were gunned down by men riding motorcycles.
Despite this, Duterte denied that the killings were carried out by a particular group. He said that any government employee or military/police personnel involved were doing it on their own.
However, the use of .45 caliber handguns – which are “expensive” – was an indication of the “officially-sanctioned character of the killings,” according to the United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on the Extrajudicial, Summary, or Arbitrary Executions.
Despite constant denial and “dearth of evidence to support a finding of direct compliance,” the Commission pointed out the “systematic failure” of local government officials and police to conduct in-depth investigations into the local killings.
In fact, a senior police officer told CHR, only 24.59% percent of killings between January and August 2009 were “solved.”
The CHR resolution concluded that the local government is liable as it did not adopt reasonable measures despite knowledge of “a real and immediate threat.”
'The continuing pattern of killings and the failure to conduct a meaningful investigation of such incidents can be construed as tolerance on the part of the authorities of the crimes, thereby contributing to the climate of impunity.'
As the local chief executive and deputized National Police Commission (Napolcom) representative, Duterte “clearly disregarded” the information available on the killings committed in his jurisdiction.
“The continuing pattern of killings and the failure to conduct a meaningful investigation of such incidents can be construed as tolerance on the part of the authorities of the crimes, thereby contributing to the climate of impunity,” the CHR added.
As early as 2005, even the US embassy had taken notice of the rise of vigilante killings in several areas in the Philippines – specifically in Davao City and Cebu City. Based on what the embassy had heard, the report said the killings “seem very popular with the publics in Davao and Cebu.”
The report also said, “Mayors Duterte and [Tomas] Osmeña clearly condone the killings – which have not hurt their political standing in the slightest and apparently given them some bounce in popularity.”
Investigations closed in Ombudsman?
The CHR came up with recommendations based on the results of its probe. However, 4 years on, little is known about what happened since.
The Office of the Ombudsman, according to the CHR in its resolution, should investigate the “possible administrative and criminal liability of Duterte for his inaction in the face of evidence of numerous killings committed in Davao City and his toleration of the commission of those offenses.”
Prior to the CHR resolution, the Office of the Ombudsman in March 2012 found 21 police officers guilty of simple neglect of duty in relation to the vigilante killings, recommending penalties ranging from one month suspension to a fine equivalent to a month's salary.
According to the Ombudsman, the "unusually high number of unsolved killings" was evidence that the local police force were "remiss in their duty." (READ: Ombudsman suspends cops for 'Davao Death Squad' killings)
However, in a statement released in 2015, HRW hit the Ombudsman for limiting its investigations to the police officers implicated "and not Duterte himself."
But according to a letter sent to CHR by the Office of the Ombudsman dated January 15, 2016 obtained by Rappler, the investigations on the DDS have been "closed and terminated."
The final disposition approved by the Overall Deputy Ombudsman Melchor Arthur H. Carandang said that "no evidence was gathered to support the killings attributed or attributable to the DDS." The Office of the Ombudsman also said that the allegations remain as "chismis and other gossips."
DOJ: ‘Difficult to do anything’
CHR recommended through the 2012 resolution the conduct of a “serious, impartial, and effective investigation” by several government agencies into the deaths attributed to the DDS to prosecute people responsible.
These investigations, the commission added, should include the “possible omissions, negligence, and obstructions of justice” done by the local government officials and police force.
In May 2016, the Department of Justice (DOJ) announced that the probe had halted as the sole witness had left the government’s Witness Protection Program (WPP).
Outgoing justice secretary Emmanuel Caparas said “it’s very difficult to do anything” about the case unless the person resurfaced. (READ: DOJ halts probe into Davao Death Squad)
"It's very difficult to proceed on that basis," he said in a press conference in May. "There are affidavits but if you want to confirm the affidavit, you have to talk to the witness. But the witness is not there."
De Lima, meanwhile, said on May 22 that the witness had asked to leave the program when she stepped down from office in October 2015.
The decision of the witness, according to the senator-elect, was “definitely in reaction to Duterte’s victory.”
Probing DDS under the new admin
HRW expressed its dismay over the slow progress of the investigations on the DDS and condemned the “long official tolerance" of the president-elect's stance on the killings even before the election period.
“The long official tolerance of Duterte’s advocacy of summary killings as effective crime-fighting strategy needs to stop,” HRW deputy Asia director Phelim Kine said in a statement.
“The government should send an unambiguous message to Duterte and other officials that support for extrajudicial killings results in an investigation – not in speaking tours.”
But despite the allegations, incoming Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II, who was the lawyer of the president-elect when the probe into the DDS was being held, insisted that the government then wasn’t able to prove any links between Duterte and the DDS.
Nothing was proven to be the work of the policemen, much less of Mayor Duterte. Mahina ang case o walang case at all. They were not able to prove anything.
Despite setbacks, CHR's Gascon said it is still a “live case” despite the lack of a witness. He gave assurances they will continue to follow up with the DOJ.
“We anticipate that perhaps the case with the DOJ will be put in the back for until such time that evidence is uncovered because I think one of the reasons why the case has not been closed is they are looking for a particular key witness – a whistle blower, someone who has been involved in some of those deaths,” he told Rappler. “I understand that this witness has become scarce.”
“But it’s still a live case and it hasn’t progressed to the stage of filing of charges because the prosecutors need to have a strong case when they file,” Gascon added.
A special investigation team, however, still exists to continue investigating the alleged killings after Duterte's statements during his campaign. (READ: Duterte: I killed 700? No, make that 1,700)
This team, according to Gascon, is now part of a bigger Special Task Force on Extrajudicial Killings set by the CHR amidst the rising number of deaths across the country.
Vigilance against crimes
Only a month after Davao City's "The Punisher" won the Philippine presidential elections with at least 14 million votes, killings of suspected drug peddlers in different parts of the country have become rampant.
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The victims engaged in shoot-outs with law enforcers, the PNP added.
Meanwhile, 3,760 people have been arrested in various anti-illegal drug operations across the Philippines from May 10 to June 15, 2016.
Given Duterte's pronouncement that he will grant presidential pardon to law enforcers convicted of killing criminals and civilians in the line of duty, can we expect the number of casualities to shoot up in the next 6 years? – Rappler.com