Will killing claims bring down Duterte?

New allegations that Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte previously oversaw assassinations by death squad threaten to destabilize his strongman rule

February 23, 2017 5:20 PM (UTC+8)
Rodrigo Duterte, then mayor of Davao City, now president of the Philippines, inspects the assault rifle of an official at a crime scene in the village of Tamugan in Davao City in the southern Philippines in 1997. Looking on is then Davao Police Chief Isidro Lapena (2nd, R). Picture: Reuters / Lenato Rumawag
Rodrigo Duterte, then mayor of Davao City, now president of the Philippines, inspects the assault rifle of an official at a crime scene in the village of Tamugan in Davao City in the southern Philippines in 1997. Looking on is then Davao Police Chief Isidro Lapena (2nd, R). Picture: Reuters / Lenato Rumawag

The Philippine Senate will serve as the political battleground between administration lawmakers and opposition senators who aim to topple President Rodrigo Duterte on explosive new claims he ordered and orchestrated extrajudicial killings while serving as mayor of Davao City.

A closed-door caucus on Tuesday saw 10 senators vote to reopen a previous Senate inquiry into allegations Duterte created and commanded a “death squad” while serving as Davao City’s mayor. Eight administration senators opposed the motion while the rest abstained, a reversal that surprised even Senate President Aquilino Pimentel III, a Duterte ally.

The move was triggered by the public confession of Arturo Lascanas, a recently retired police officer who was personally close to Duterte and an alleged leader of the so-called Davao Death Squad (DDS) vigilante group. Human Rights Watch, a US rights lobby, has reported the death squad was behind 1,424 extrajudicial killings. Duterte and his supporters have consistently denied the death squad existed. 

At a press conference, Lascanas claimed that the death squad was real and that then-mayor Duterte allegedly paid its members between P20,000 to P100,000 for each targeted killing. He added that on top of the bounties, he received a monthly allowance of P100,000 from the Office of the Mayor. He also admitted his involvement in the 2003 murder of Juan “Jun” Pala, a radio broadcaster who was frequently critical of Duterte on his program.

Former police officer Arthur Lascanas (R) is escorted by security personnel after a press conference at the Senate in Manila on February 20, 2017.Lascanas during the press conference confessed to a litany of brutal crimes allegedly ordered by President Rodrigo Duterte when he was the mayor of the southern city of Davao. The crimes range from the murder of a Duterte opponent to the bombing of a mosque. He testified in the senate last October, but at that time denied the allegations. / AFP PHOTO / TED ALJIBE
Former police officer Arthur Lascanas (R) is escorted by security personnel after a press conference at the Senate in Manila on February 20, 2017. Lascanas during the press conference confessed to a litany of brutal crimes allegedly ordered by President Rodrigo Duterte when he was the mayor of the southern city of Davao. Photo: AFP / Ted Aljibe 

Lascanas recanted his sworn testimony before the Senate Justice and Human Rights Committee in October last year, in which he denied the existence of the death squad. Now, his testimony matches that of another self-confessed death squad member, Edgar Matobato, who likewise accused Duterte of ordering assassinations.

The charged allegations, viewed by analysts as the gravest threat yet to Duterete’s strongman rule, comes at a delicate time for the president, who won election last year on a strong anti-crime platform. His war on drugs campaign has claimed at least 7,000 victims, most of whom were drug addicts or petty drug sellers who were either killed by policemen or by masked gunmen in the streets or in their own homes.

Criticism against the onslaught peaked with the October murder of South Korean businessman Ick Joo Jee. An anti-drug team kidnapped Jee and demanded a ransom from his family before strangling him to death at the Camp Crame police headquarters in Manila. The incident triggered a public outcry that reached even South Korea, one of the Philippines’ leading trade partners.

With the crescendo of public outrage reaching fever pitch, Duterte suspended his war against illegal drugs, deactivated all police anti-illegal drug teams, ordered the dismissal of and filing of charges against the policemen involved in the Korean’s murder, and denounced the police as “rotten to the core.” At the same time, Duterte asserted the campaign would continue until his term ends in 2022. 

The body of a dead man with his head wrapped in masking tape, whom police said was a victim of a drug-related vigilante execution, lays on a street in Pasay city, metro Manila. Photo: Reuters/Romeo Ranoco
The body of a dead man with his head wrapped in masking tape, whom police said was a victim of a drug-related vigilante execution, lays on a street in Pasay city, metro Manila. Photo: Reuters / Romeo Ranoco

Despite the controversy, Duterte had enjoyed high public opinion ratings. A polling firm revealed in September that after a hundred days in office he enjoyed a net satisfaction rating of +64%, higher than those of all recent Philippine leaders apart from reformist President Fidel Ramos. Another survey conducted in December showed Dutete had retained his popularity despite his drug war’s killing spree.

Now, even Duterte’s more powerful supporters are calling for a rethink on how he rules. Former President Ramos, whom Duterte has described as one of his biggest backers, recently criticized his administration’s lack of reforms. Ramos described many of his policies as “fiascos”, including the anti-drug war, the breakdown of the peace talks with communist rebels and the dearth of calamity funds for typhoon-struck Surigao del Norte province.

The Catholic Church, a key actor in the downfall of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos, is also becoming more vocal. A pastoral letter issued by the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines read in all parishes on a Sunday earlier this month denounced the spate of extrajudicial killings as a “reign of terror” and called for observance of the rule of law.

On February 18, more than 10,000 Catholics gathered at Manila’s Rizal Park—site of national hero Jose Rizal’s martyrdom a century earlier—to protest extrajudicial killings and the latest plan of the Lower House dominated by Duterte’s allies to bring back the death penalty. Dubbed as a “Walk for Life,” the gathering was “a sign that people are standing up for life and they are against the death penalty and [extrajudicial killings],” according to Manila Auxilliary Bishop Broderick Pabillo. 

The upcoming Senate inquiry, to be handled by the Senate Public Order and Dangerous Drugs Committee under Senator Panfilo Lacson, a retired senior police official, will compound Duterte’s fast emerging political headaches. The inquiry is expected to reveal more about the alleged Davao death squad, including its chain of command, operational details and the back stories of assassinated targets.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte answers a question during a press conference at the Malacanang palace in Manila on January 30, 2017. On January 30, 2017, he extended his deadly drug war until the last day of his term in 2022, but conceded the police force acting as his frontline troops was "corrupt to the core". Photo: AFP / Noel Celis
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte answers a question during a press conference at the Malacanang palace in Manila on January 30, 2017. On January 30, 2017, he extended his drug war until the last day of his term in 2022, but conceded the police force acting as his frontline troops was “corrupt to the core”. Photo: AFP / Noel Celis

The Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG), a nationwide association of human rights lawyers who are supporting Lascanas, said his testimony is already enough to file an impeachment case against Duterte. There is a big hurdle, though, in that Duterte’s PDP-Laban Party enjoys a coalition majority in the House of Representatives. But the opposition senators’ surprising win on Tuesday to reopen the Senate inquiry could signal a shift in political winds, some analysts say.

Duterte has so far demonstrated a knack for defusing potentially explosive situations, as seen in his deft handling of the South Korean businessman’s outrageous killing. If his allies in the Senate railroad the inquiry it could spark a wider groundswell against his heavy-handed rule. Yet by letting next week’s hearing play out, it could galvanize calls for his impeachment.

Duterte’s appointees are already in damage control mode, with his communications secretary dismissing Lascanas’ testimony as “character assassination” motivated by “vicious politics.” Yet it’s not clear Duterte’s still strong popularity and alliances in Congress will be enough to weather the storm that will surely arise when the ex-policeman makes more allegations about the death squads Duterte claims never existed.

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