MANILA, Philippines >> President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines today said for the first time that extrajudicial killings had happened under his government’s brutal war on drugs, an admission that could bolster two cases filed against him at the International Criminal Court.
In a rambling speech before government executives at the presidential palace, Duterte again touched on the government’s drug war that has left thousands dead, a common theme in his two-year-old presidency.
He said he had challenged the country’s military and police brass to remove him from office if they were not satisfied with the way he was running the country.
“I told the military, what is my fault? Did I steal even one peso?” Duterte said. “My only sin is the extrajudicial killings.”
He did not elaborate. But it was the first time Duterte publicly acknowledged that extrajudicial killings by the authorities had occurred in his presidency, and it added credibility to claims by rights groups that he had engineered mass killings of alleged drug suspects.
Two criminal complaints against the president have been filed with the International Criminal Court, based in The Hague. Angered by what he called foreign interference in the Philippines’ internal affairs, Duterte subsequently pulled out of an international treaty that established the court.
Two men — a former police officer and a self-confessed hit man — filed the first case, claiming that they had carried out killings at Duterte’s order when he was still the mayor of a southern city. The second case was filed in August by relatives of eight people slain in the drug war, and accused Duterte of “crimes against humanity” for ordering thousands of murders connected to his drug war.
The Philippine National Police estimate that they have killed about 4,500 users and dealers in drug enforcement operations in the past two years, and insist that all of the killings were legitimate uses of force.
Rights groups, including the New York-based Human Rights Watch, estimate that more than 12,000 people have died in the drug war, many of them victims of summary execution by the police.
Duterte last year temporarily halted police anti-drug operations after three teenagers were mistakenly killed, igniting street protests led by the Catholic Church. But police operations have since resumed, leading to near-daily killings.
Today, Duterte criticized an opposition leader, Sen. Francis Pangilinan, for sponsoring a law that exempts children below age 15 years from criminal liability. The president’s allies in Congress say that it encourages criminals to employ minors.
Duterte also reiterated that the drug war would continue until his six-year term ends in 2022.
“It will not end,” he said. “As I have said, I will put on the table my life, the presidency. I can lose it anytime. My honor.”
Romel Bagares, a lawyer for a human rights group, the Philippine Coalition for the International Criminal Court, noted that while Duterte was known for his off-the-cuff remarks, today’s comments were “by far his most direct admission of being responsible for” extrajudicial killings.
“And I am surprised there has been no retraction of any kind from the palace since he made them,” he said. “I’m sure this would also be of extreme interest to the ICC’s Office of the Trial Prosecutor now making a preliminary investigation of his drug war.”