ICC probing alleged crimes in Philippines, Venezuela

2 min 35Approximate reading time

The prosecutor at the International Criminal Court Thursday unveiled two new initial probes focusing on the deadly war on drugs in the Philippines and alleged abuses during Venezuela's political unrest.

The unprecedented decision to launch two inquiries at once comes after ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda was petitioned by opposition leaders from the two countries, accusing their hardline governments of crimes against humanity.

Bensouda said she had followed events in the countries closely, and after "a careful, independent and impartial review... I have decided to open a preliminary examination into each situation."

Both countries have signed up to the Rome Statute, underpinning the ICC, giving the tribunal authority to investigate crimes on their territories.

In the Philippines, Bensouda's office would "analyse crimes allegedly committed... since at least 1 July 2016, in the context of the 'war on drugs' campaign" launched by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.

She vowed to focus on allegations that "thousands of persons have been killed for reasons related to their alleged involvement in illegal drug use."

Opened in 2002, the ICC is the world's only permanent war crimes court and was set up to prosecute the planet's worst crimes where national courts are unable or unwilling to proceed.

The Philippines probe will be its first preliminary examination in a southeast Asian nation, and Jude Sabio, the Filipino lawyer behind the suit, told AFP he was "elated" and "vindicated" by the action.

- Murder, torture, detention -

In Venezuela, Bensouda said she would examine crimes allegedly committed during a wave of protests since April 2017 against the government of President Nicolas Maduro.

"It has been alleged that state security forces frequently used excessive force to disperse and put down demonstrations" as well as detaining thousands of opposition members, she said.

The prosecutor's team will also look into whether the protestors had resorted to "violent means" injuring or killing security personnel.

The ICC has often come under fire for focusing heavily on crimes in African nations, and the Venezuela case will be only its second preliminary examination in South America.

One is under way in Colombia into alleged abuses during the conflict with the FARC rebels, who reached a peace deal with the government in 2016.

In November, Venezuela's former attorney general Luisa Ortega, who has fled the country, alleged Venezuelan police and military officials had killed some 1,767 people in 2015.

There had also been more than "17,000 arbitrary detentions and hundreds of cases of torture," she alleged turning in 1,000 pieces of evidence to the ICC in The Hague.

Manila had already been informed of the probe and Duterte denied all charges, his spokesman said, denouncing the inquiry as "a waste of time and resources" and a bid to embarrass the president.

But Duterte had welcomed the development and was ready to "argue his case personally" before the tribunal as he was "sick and tired of being accused of committing crimes against humanity," spokesman Harry Roque said.

- Leaders in the dock? -

Duterte won a landslide victory in 2016 elections largely on a pledge to eradicate drugs in Philippine society.

He has since overseen a crackdown that has left nearly 4,000 drug suspects dead at the hands of the police. The authorities are also investigating more than 2,000 other cases of "drug-related" killings by unknown suspects.

Rights groups have put the total number of drug war deaths as at least twice the official figure, many of them committed by shadowy vigilantes.

"This is a big step because finally the system of death squad killings created by Duterte... can be investigated," Sabio said, adding he hoped it would lead to Duterte's arrest.

However, it will likely be years, if ever, before anyone appears in the ICC's dock.

The prosecutor must first determine if there is enough evidence of crimes falling into the ICC's jurisdiction. She must then ask ICC judges to authorise a full investigation, at the end of which charges may be brought.

Currently there are eight preliminary examinations underway, including in Afghanistan, Iraq, the Palestinian territories and Ukraine.

A further 11 full-blown investigations have been launched, all of which except Georgia and Libya, are probing war crimes and crimes against humanity in African nations.