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Kill or arrest? SC’s Carpio pins down what PNP means by ‘neutralize’

Rambo Talabong
Kill or arrest? SC’s Carpio pins down what PNP means by ‘neutralize’
(UPDATED) Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Carpio says the term 'neutralize' can mean 3 things in the war on drugs

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – When the Philippine National Police (PNP) says “neutralize”, does it mean arrest or kill?

Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio pinned down its meaning on Tuesday, November 21, during oral arguments on the guidelines which govern the PNP’s war on drugs.

He quoted PNP chief Ronald dela Rosa in his interpellation of Jose Manuel Diokno of the Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG), which questioned the use of the terms in the drug war. (READ: Was the PNP’s war on drugs illegal? Here’s why lawyers think so)

“The PNP Director General Dela Rosa was quoted in a Davao paper, Davao Today, and he said, their target was for all drug personalities in the area to be, and I quote, ‘neutralized, meaning they should surrender, be arrested, or be killed during drug operations’,” Carpio said.

Dela Rosa was quoted on August 9, 2016, or just a month after the PNP rolled out Oplan Double Barrel. (TIMELINE: The PNP’s use of the term ‘deaths under investigation’)

“So it doesn’t only mean killed, it’s a general term and it has been used even during the previous administration,” Carpio said, referring to the time when former senator Mar Roxas headed the Department of the Interior and Local Government.

Nonetheless, Diokno’s group argued that the definition of the term was not explicit, adding that other pronouncements of Dela Rosa and even President Rodrigo Duterte encouraging cops to kill drug suspects, in effect “empowered” the men in blue to kill. (READ: Shoot to kill? Duterte’s statements on killing drug users)

“We take issue with the use of those terms in the circular because they could easily be construed to include the authority to kill…If the chief of the PNP simply meant to arrest and prosecute, then he should have just used those terms, and not terms that are subject to easy misinterpretation by the policeman on the ground,” Diokno said before they moved forward in his interpellation.

‘Void for vagueness’

While “neutralization” does not mean to kill alone, Associate Justice Francis Jardeleza found the term still “vague”.

“It seems to me the very least that the word ‘neutralize’ can have at least two meanings, which means that it can be vague, or capable of multiple interpretations,” Jardeleza said while addressing Diokno and Center for International Law counsel Joel Butuyan.

He asked the lawyers to flesh out their case against the PNP memorandum, asking them to construct a “void for vagueness” argument in their petition to have it nullified.

“I would like you to construct an argument there seems to be something there. If we have a principle that protects the accused – void for vagueness – is there a principle that would protect citizens from a vague circular, that can arguably result in 3,000 killings?” Jardeleza asked. The document in question, however, as Jardeleza pointed out, involves a memorandum circular of an executive agency.

Void for vagueness means rendering a law invalid for lack of clarity because the accused needs to understand what he is being accused of to be able to defend himself adequately.

Right after the PNP was pulled out from the administration’s war on drugs, the government initiative #RealNumbersPH counted 77,468 operations which killed 3,967 and arrested 117,044 drug personalities as of October 25, 2017.

During the oral arguments, unnamed private groups were quoted as saying there have been more than 13,000 deaths in the drug war. – Rappler.com

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Rambo Talabong

Rambo Talabong covers the House of Representatives and local governments for Rappler. Prior to this, he covered security and crime. He was named Jaime V. Ongpin Fellow in 2019 for his reporting on President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs. In 2021, he was selected as a journalism fellow by the Fellowships at Auschwitz for the Study of Professional Ethics.