Bangkok: Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte could face international criminal charges as the death count in his relentless war on drugs tops almost 2000, human rights advocates say.
Comments by the tough-talking former provincial mayor such as “all of you are into drugs, you sons of bitches … I will kill you” could be used as evidence to prosecute him, they say.
Sam Zarifi from the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) says it is likely that as the killings continue lawyers will gather evidence to initiate legal proceedings against Mr Duterte like 9541 victims of the late Philippines dictator Ferdinand Marcos did in the United States in the 1990s.
In 1995 a US court awarded the victims $US1.9 billion after finding that Marcos, who died in exile in 1989, was responsible for massive human rights abuses, including torture, murder and “disappearances of fellow Filipinos”.
At the time lawyers said the verdict set a ground-breaking precedent upholding the principle that military “command responsibility” for wartime misconduct is applicable in a class-action suit alleging peacetime human rights abuses by the agents of a political leader.
Mr Zarifi, the ICJ’s regional director for Asia and Pacific, told the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand that the killings in the Philippines since 71-year-old Mr Duterte was swept into office at May elections are widespread and systematic, meeting the criteria under international law of crimes against humanity that could be prosecuted by the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
He said while anyone can submit a case to the International Criminal Court, prosecutors there would be unlikely to initiate proceedings unless pressed by a global political movement.
But he said criminal charges could be laid against Mr Duterte in any country.
“I am not holding my breath for international action but if these (killings) continue at the same velocity I would expect cases to start popping up,” he said.
Mr Zarifi said Mr Duterte has made many comments that could be used against him in foreign courts, including several weeks ago declaring: “My order is to shoot to kill. I don’t care about human rights … this is a war against drugs and we have to fight it.”
Phelim Kine, Human Rights Watch’s Asia director, described the first weeks of Mr Duterte’s rule as “nothing less than absolute human rights disaster”.
“We have the highest elected official of the land openly, actively, aggressively calling for the extrajudicial killing of criminal suspects,” he said.
“The numbers are absolutely shocking.”
Mr Duterte promised during the election campaign that 100,000 people would die in his drugs crackdown and that fish in Manila Bay would grow fat from eating bodies.
But amid condemnation from human rights groups, the United Nations, the United States, the Catholic Church and some politicians, Mr Duterte has in recent weeks denied security forces have carried out extra-judicial killings, saying police have only killed in self-defence.
The latest police data shows that around 1000 accused drug suspects have been killed in police operations and another around 1000 in shootings by unidentified assailants.
Opinion polls show approval of Mr Duterte continues to hover around 90 per cent in the country of 100 million people with one of Asia’s highest rates of illegal drug use and crime.
Mr Duterte claims there are more than three million drugs users in the country.
More than 600,000 have surrendered to police since July 1, packing prisoners into already overcrowded jails.