ICC seeks probe into Philippines drug war murders

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The International Criminal Court’s chief prosecutor sought a full investigation Monday into crimes against humanity during the Philippines’ war on drugs, in one of her last acts before stepping down this week.

Fatou Bensouda is asking judges at the world’s only permanent war crimes court to authorise a probe into allegations that police unlawfully killed as many as tens of thousands of civilians between 2016 and 2019.

Manila pulled out of the ICC in 2019 after the ICC launched a preliminary examination into President Rodrigo Duterte’s drug crackdown, but the court said it could still investigate crimes committed while it was a member.

“I announce that the preliminary examination into the situation in the Republic of the Philippines has concluded and that I have requested judicial authorisation to proceed with an investigation,” Fatou Bensouda said in a statement.

“I have determined that there is a reasonable basis to believe that the crime against humanity of murder has been committed… in the context of the government of Philippines ‘war on drugs’ campaign”, she said.

Gambian lawyer Bensouda, whose term of office ends on Tuesday, and “any authorised investigation in the Philippines will fall to my able successor, Mr Karim Khan, to take forward”, she said.

Britain’s Khan will be sworn in on Wednesday with a host of challenges in his inbox including a probe into Israel and the Palestinian territories.

– ‘Thousands of civilians’ –

Duterte’s drug crackdown has drawn international censure and prompted the ICC to launch its preliminary probe three years ago.

Duterte’s drug war is his signature policy initiative and he defends it fiercely, especially from critics like Western leaders and institutions which he says do not care about his country.

He was elected to office in 2016 on a campaign promise to get rid of the country’s drug problem, openly ordering the police to kill drug suspects if their lives are in danger.

More than 6,000 people have been killed in over 200,000 anti-drug operations conducted since July 2016, the latest official data show.

Human rights groups estimate the number of dead could be several times higher.

The ICC’s Bensouda said the court “does not take a position on any government’s internal policies” to combat drugs but that it was acting under its mandate to investigate war crimes and crimes against humanity.

“The available information indicates that members of the Philippine National Police, and others acting in concert with them, have unlawfully killed between several thousand and tens of thousands of civilians” during the period under investigation.

The court would also investigate allegations of torture and other “inhumane acts” dating back as far as 2011, it said.

– ‘Drug watch lists’ –

Many suspects had been put on “drug watch lists” by local officials and then visited by police at their homes, which often ends in a deadly shooting that officers claim was self-defence.

The tough-talking president has repeatedly claimed the ICC has no jurisdiction over him and that he will not cooperate with what he has called an “illegal” probe. He even threatened to arrest the former ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda.

Bensouda however said previous cases showed that “the court retains jurisdiction over crimes that are alleged to have occurred on the territory of that state during the period when it was a state party” to the ICC.

Duterte has previously told the tribunal that the country’s justice system is working amid allegations that local courts cannot or are unwilling to prosecute suspects in the killings — one of the criteria for the ICC to open a full investigation.

Duterte has said he is willing to go behind bars if proven guilty in the Philippine judicial system.

“If the court says that I should go to jail, I will go to jail. That’s no problem. I did what I embarked to do,” Duterte said in a televised speech in December 2020.