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ICC probing alleged crimes in Philippines, Venezuela

ICC probing alleged crimes in Philippines, Venezuela©©AFP/Noel Celis Relatives visit the grave of their loved one, a minor, who was killed a year ago during the government's war on drugs campaign, at the Tala Cemetery in Caloocan, east of Manila
2 min 30Approximate reading time

The prosecutor at the International Criminal Court on Thursday unveiled new 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 after "a careful, independent and impartial review... I have decided to open a preliminary examination into each situation."

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

In the Philippines, Bensouda's office will analyse alleged crimes, since July 1, 2016, carried out in "the 'war on drugs' campaign" launched by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.

It has been alleged that "thousands of persons have been killed for reasons related to their alleged involvement in illegal drug use," she said.

Opened in 2002, the ICC is the world's only permanent war crimes court and aims to prosecute the worst abuses when national courts are unable or unwilling.

The Philippines probe will be its first preliminary examination in a southeast Asian nation, and Jude Sabio, the Filipino lawyer who took the case to the ICC, told AFP he was "elated".

- 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 ICC prosecutor will also examine whether protesters resorted to "violent means", injuring or killing security personnel.

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

One is already underway 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".

But Duterte is ready to "argue his case personally" before the tribunal as he is "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.

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

Rights groups have said the number of drug war deaths is at least twice the official figure.

"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.

Bensouda's announcement was also welcomed by rights groups, as "a clear sign that the ICC is asserting itself as a world court," said Amal Nasser, permanent representative to the ICC from the International Federation for Human Rights.

It is also important that the ICC moves beyond war zones to "where there is no armed conflict in order to address criminal tactics by authorities against gangs and drugs or against protesters," she added.

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.

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