Philippines senator calls for Duterte to face crimes against humanity inquiryOctober 24, 2016
A leading member of the Philippines’ senate has called for an international criminal investigation into the country’s president in an effort to stop a vicious war on drugs that has killed more than 3,800 people since June.
Senator Leila de Lima, a human rights advocate and former justice secretary, has told the Guardian that foreign intervention was the only hope of putting an end to “state-inspired” extrajudicial murders that have terrorised parts of the population since president Rodrigo Duterte came to power four months ago.
In an interview De Lima urged world leaders to consider sanctions and the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague to launch an investigation into Duterte and those who worked for him.
“It [ICC] should start to think about investigating already or doing an inquiry into the killings as crimes against humanity,” she said.
The senator fears for her own life after she was ousted last month as chair of an inquiry looking into the vigilante death squads targeting drug dealers and users, and her address and mobile number were made public.
“For a few weeks after that I was unable to go home, I slept in other places although I was able to sneak into my house from time to time, so I felt like a thief in the night in my own home,” she said.
“The more unfortunate thing is that ever since they publicised my cellphone number I did receive a lot, almost 2,000, of hate messages and death threats.”
De Lima has become the nemesis of Duterte, who swept to power in May on a mandate to enforce zero tolerance on drugs-related crime. He denies any links to extrajudicial murder, but critics say his inflammatory rhetoric has unleashed a wave of violence.
The president said he would “be happy to slaughter” three million Filipino drug users and peddlers, and has publicly urged citizens to “go ahead and kill” addicts and dealers.
About 1,500 of the dead have been killed in police operations, but most were murdered by unidentified assassins, leading to accusations that Duterte has allowed a state of lawlessness where criminals can settle vendettas with impunity.
Last month the Guardian reported how a serving senior police office had claimed that death squads were operating with official sanction in the capital, Manila, killing dozens of suspected drug users and pushers. The allegation has been denied.
Meanwhile Duterte has described innocent and child victims of the bloodbath as “collateral damage”. The youngest victim to date is Danica Mae, a five-year-old who was shot in the neck in August by a masked gunman targeting her grandfather.
Fighting the ‘unwinnable war’
Senator De Lima, a divorced mother of three and prominent lawyer, is Duterte’s fiercest and most high-profile opponent.
Her pleas for outside help come after her own efforts to expose what she claims is the truth of the bloody crackdown on drugs put her life in danger.
In August, as head of the senate justice committee, she launched hearings to investigate the surge in killings by vigilante gangs.
Her lone crusade won her many powerful enemies, not least the president, who told her first to resign then to hang herself.
In September the animosity between De Lima and Duterte erupted when she invited self-professed hitman, Edgar Matobato, to testify.
He alleged that Duterte had once shot dead a justice department official with an Uzi submachine gun and ordered the killing of criminals and political rivals while mayor of Davao City, in the south of the Philippines.
The president strongly denied the claims and apparent inconsistencies were found in Matobato’s cross-examination.
De Lima faced a backlash from Duterte’s supporters, led by Manny Pacquiao, the former boxing superstar, and now a senator. She was ousted as committee chair, then the death threats began.
“It got worse ever since this thing exploded, ever since the president himself would viciously attack me, would vilify me publicly with his pronouncements,” she said.
“I’m not really saying that such a threat comes from the president himself or from his men, but he’s got a throng of fanatical supporters so any of those can think about harming me. The threat is there whether or not it’s sanctioned by the president.”
De Lima has since been accused of corruption and links to drug lords. Her critics allege she was complicit in the drugs trade in the national Bilibit prison when she was head of the department of justice, claiming that inmates raised money to fund her 2016 senatorial bid. She denies all charges, denouncing them as a “sham”.
She has been subjected to a ruthless character assassination, full of sexually explicit slurs.
“De Lima is not only screwing her driver, she is also screwing the nation,” Duterte said in September, referring to accusations that she had an affair with her driver, who allegedly collected payoffs from criminals.
The senator has been threatened with the exposure of a “sex tape”, the existence of which has never been verified.
Such personal attacks only revealed Duterte’s innate sexism, she charged.
“I am undoubtedly being targeted because I’m a woman, because we have a misogynistic president. He regards women as inferior … that we are second-class citizens.”
De Lima feels she is fighting an “unwinnable war”, prompting her calls for international intervention.
Duterte’s war on drugs has already been condemned by the United Nations, European Union and the United States.
He responded with expletives, telling the EU “Fuck you” and calling the US president, Barack Obama, a “son of a whore”.
Earlier in October, the International Criminal Court’s chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, said her office were watching for signs of officials “ordering, requesting, encouraging or contributing” to crimes against humanity.
De Lima argues the stage is already set for the ICC to step in.
“I believe that the ICC, given the current situation, under the current factual premises that we have, the continued killings, would have rightful jurisdiction,” she said.
They should have the right to investigate “anyone, including the president, and his lieutenants, those who implement his orders”, she added.
“I have no doubt in my mind that this is really state-inspired,” De Lima said. “You
cannot dismiss this sort of rhetoric as just a figure of speech or hyperbole because that’s not how the people on the ground have been interpreting the pronouncements of the president.”
The EU and the UN should monitor developments and start rethinking aid packages, while remembering that the administration did not reflect the “real sentiments of the people”, she said.
Sanctions were “an option”, but decisions should be left to the foreign countries concerned.
Meanwhile De Lima admits her own fight is a “lonely” one.
“There is not much support, particularly from politicians. I do feel there is some groundswell of support from ordinary people,” she said.
“On the whole, the majority is still silent. But I do know that more people are beginning to get worried because more people are beginning to really think about what’s happening.”