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Families urge Philippines to work with ICC on ‘drug war’ probe


Manila, Philippines – Families of the victims of former Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s brutal “drug war” are urging the new administration to cooperate after the International Criminal Court (ICC) said it would resume its investigation into the killings.

Llore Pasco, 68, lost two of her sons in May 2017.

According to the police, they were criminals and probably killed by fellow villains or rivals.

Pasco never believed the story. Her sons’ bodies were riddled with bullets and marks of torture.

Officially, the incident is still under investigation by the Philippine National Police (PNP), but Pasco says no officer has ever come to ask her questions or share updates on the status of the case.

Pasco, along with six other family members, filed complaints with the ICC against Duterte and the PNP in August 2018 for murder and crimes against humanity.

“What is Duterte afraid of? He gets his day in court, a chance to defend himself. That’s more than our loved ones got, they just got executed,” she told Al Jazeera.

Pasco has never considered filing a complaint with the Philippine courts because she says the justice system is “notoriously slow for everyday people like me.”

“How many cops have been punished for their crimes since the drug war?” she said. “Less than the fingers on my hand, and yet thousands have died.”

Thousands of people have died in the ‘drug war’. The ICC wants to investigate the killings as a possible crime against humanity (File: Aaron Favila/AP Photo)

About 6,000 people have died in drug-related operations, according to police. But human rights organizations and even the Philippine Human Rights Commission have said the number is likely closer to 30,000.

The ICC suspended its investigation in November 2021 when Duterte’s government said the Philippines was conducting its own investigation into the killings, but in January the International Court of Justice said it would resume work because it was “not satisfied” that Manila was “relevant” did research”.

Duterte, who cut ties with the ICC after it announced the original investigation, left office last May, but the government of his successor Ferdinand Marcos Jr has also reacted coolly to the ICC decision.

Days after the ICC announcement, Juan Ponce Enrile, the president’s chief legal adviser, threatened to have the court officials arrested if they stepped on Philippine soil. Marcos Jr, a longtime ally of the Duterte family, had previously criticized the court, saying its activities constituted an “intrusion into (the Philippines’) internal affairs and a threat to (the country’s) sovereignty.”

‘Existential Threat’

The antagonism towards the ICC is shared in many areas of the Philippine political system.

In Congress, former President Gloria Arroyo spearheaded a House resolution introduced on Feb. 16 for Duterte’s “unequivocal defense.”

Senator Robin Padilla introduced a similar resolution in the Senate four days later, saying Duterte was only fighting illegal drugs because “it poses an existential threat to the social fabric of the country.”

At a press conference following the ICC announcement, Justice Minister Crispin Remulla said the court “insulted” us. On television, he said the Philippines does not protect anyone from prosecution and stressed that the ICC’s involvement was “not practical” because it would undermine the country’s courts.

Like Marcos, Remulla insists the ICC has no jurisdiction, but the court says it has the authority to investigate alleged crimes that have taken place in the Philippines during the country’s nearly eight years as a party to the Rome Statute, including the ICC was founded.

Duterte’s drug war began and peaked in 2016, but he didn’t pull the Philippines from the Rome Statute until 2019.

Former President Rodrigo Duterte and current President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.  stand side by side with their wives at Sara Duterte's inauguration as Vice President.  They wear traditional shirts.
New President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. (second from right) is an old ally of the Duterte family (File: Manman Dejeto/AP Photo)

The ICC has announced that the Philippine government will appeal the court’s announcement that it will resume its work. Meanwhile, the court told Al Jazeera that it intended to increase engagement with civil society in the Philippines and expand cooperation in the region.

“With the investigation approved to proceed, the Public Prosecutor’s Office will continue its efforts to bring justice to the victims in the Philippines,” the ICC spokesperson said.

Relatives of victims, such as Pasco, have also organized support networks campaigning for justice.

Pasco is a leader of Rise Up for Life and Rights, a major alliance that has established ties with several faith-based groups and urges the government to “assist and welcome” the International Court of Justice. It was also part of the complaint filed by the victims’ relatives.

Nanette Castillo is also cautiously optimistic about the resumption of the ICC investigation.

Her only son Aldrin, 20, was killed in October 2017 as he crossed the street in Quezon City. He was allegedly attacked by seven masked men on motorcycles and shot five times; three of the bullets lodged in his head. Castillo spent months trying to get the police reports on her son’s murder, which was classified as a “death under investigation,” but gave up in 2018.

The Human Rights Commission has said his murder was a case of mistaken identity.

“Many of us hope, but not too much,” she said. “We know it’s going to take a while and we don’t want to be disappointed if nothing comes out. I just want our officials to see our pain. Don’t they have children too?”

Castillo says she often traveled several hours to PNP headquarters in Manila to learn more about her son’s case. But she says the officers at the station were uncooperative and unwilling to help her.

“After many attempts, they finally gave me a copy of the spot report. But for the police report, they wanted to hand it over to me at 12:00 in the station. I was too scared to go and that’s why I never went back,” she said. A spot report refers to the immediate incident report while the police report is prepared later and is more detailed.

Attorney Kristina Conti, representing the victims’ families to the ICC, argues that the government’s critical failure is “the ubiquitous acceptance that because the ‘war on drugs’ is a government policy, it is untouchable and untouchable, and the accompanying insidious claim that the abuses are not policy.”

Conti warns that having a functioning judiciary does not guarantee justice either.

“It’s also about how other branches of government have made sure there are no rights violations or abuses, how they’ve been accountable, how they’ve dealt with bad policies,” she told Al Jazeera.

A priest blesses the urns of victims of the drug war at a church in Manila.
Catholic priest Flavie Villanueva blesses the urns of men killed in the drug war (File: Eloisa Lopez/Reuters)

Sheryll Ceasico, a teacher in one of Manila’s poorest districts, says, “No matter what cover-up they try to do, people like me are living proof of the crimes they’ve committed.”

Ceasico’s brother surrendered to police early in Duterte’s drug war as a former drug user. He thought it would reduce the likelihood of violence.

Three days later, Ceasico says she saw a masked man break into their house and kill her brother with four gunshots.

“We are still so many. Our testimonies have not yet been heard by the ICC or any court,” she told Al Jazeera.


Merry C. Vega is a highly respected and accomplished news author. She began her career as a journalist, covering local news for a small-town newspaper. She quickly gained a reputation for her thorough reporting and ability to uncover the truth.

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