An international human rights group yesterday accused the mayor of Davao City of giving “tacit support” to death squads behind the killing of 800 people over the past decade.
New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte “continues to deny the undeniable” by refusing to investigate the killings.
“The words and actions of long-time Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte… indicate his support for the targeted killing of criminal suspects,” HRW said in a study of the vigilante murders which took place between 1998 and 2008.
The study conducted last year into the so-called Davao death squads found a patter of “official complicity” by police and village officials in the killings, HRW deputy director Elaine Pearson told a press briefing.
While there was no hard evidence linking Duterte to the murders, HRW executive director Kenneth Roth quoted previous statements by Duterte where he said criminals in Davao “are a legitimate target of assasination.”
He also cited Duterte’s earlier practice of reading out names of suspected criminals over the radio to warn them.
Duterte has not yet responded to the allegations but has previously denied any involvement with the vigilantes.
The study, entitled “You Can Die Anytime: Death Squad Killings in Mindanao,” found local officials compile lists of suspected criminals to be targeted.
In the HRW study, death squad members speaking anonymously revealed that retired or active policement usually acted as “handlers” for these vigilantes, identifying who should be killed and providing weapons, motorcycles and financing for the murders.
The group also said its investigation showed 814 suspected drug dealers, petty criminals and street children were killed by death squads between 1998 and February 2009 in Davao City, with victims as young as 14.
Thirty-three killings were reported in the city in January alone. “The hundreds of targeted killings in Davao City in recent years are clearly not random events but the result of planned hits by a ‘death squad’ that involves police officers and local officials,” said Roth.
“The police consistently fail to bring the perpetrators to justice, while the local government cheers from the sidelines,” he added.
The group likewise criticized the lack of any effort by authorities to investigate the killings and bring those responsible for the human rights violations to justice.
The HRW particularly critized President Arroyo’s administration because it has in effect allowed the vigilante style justice being undertaken by Mayor Duterte.
“It has largely ignored the targeted killings in Davao City and elsewhere,” the report said, adding Mrs. Arroyo’s designation of Duterte as her consultant on peace and order in 2003 is an indication of her approval of Duterte’s “tough on crime” approach, which they belive “encourages violations of law.”
The group urged the President to investigate the killings and hold the perpetrators accountable.
No comment was immediately available from police and officials on the report.
The group said it investigated 28 killings and obtained details and information from relatives and friends of death squad members, as well as journalists, community activists and government officials.
HRW said most death squad members were former community New People’s Army insurgents who surrendered to the government or young men who were targeted and joined the group to avoid being killed.
Police officers or ex-police officers provided the death squads with training, weapons and ammunitions, motorcycles, and information on the targets, HRW said.
Police were deliberaly slow to respond to killings, enabling death squad members – who operate in twos or threes on a motorcycle without a license plate – to escape the crime scene.
“Death squad members often use .45 caliber handguns, a weapon commonly used by police by prohibitively expensive for gang members and common criminals,” HRW pointed out.
The group also said that police often fail to collect “obvious evidence” such as pent bullet casings, or to question witnesses or suspects, but instead pressure the families of victims to identify the killers.
In a hearing on the killings conducted by the Commission on Human Rights last month, Duterte said gang rivalries were to blamce for the killings.
The HRW said Duterte has attempted to justify the killing of suspected criminals as a deterrent to crime that will make the city safer, but police statistics show that crime has increased 219 percent over the last decade.
HRW warned the killings have expanded beyond the southern island of Mindanao to central Cebu City, the Philippines’ second largest metropolis.
CHR chairperson Leila de Lima lauded the HRW report, saying they will use the report’s abundant information. She vowed to pursue the leads and try to “access the Davao death squad insiders referred to in their report.”
DeLima also yesterday backed Speaker Prospero Nograles’ views that no big-time criminals such as drug lords or rich drug pushers and users have fallen victim to Davao death squads. –AFP, AP, Katherine Adraneda, Non Alquitran, Delon Porcalla, Edith Regalado