No drug-related extrajudicial killings in the Philippines?

Human rights activists and family members of the victims of drug-related killings have expressed outrage and disappointment at Manila's denial of any wrongdoing in President Duterte's drug war. Ana P. Santos reports.

Human rights groups claim there have been thousands of drug-related deaths since Rodrigo Duterte took office last year and unleashed a massive crackdown on illegal drugs, but the Philippine National Police (PNP) last week said that out of 6,225 drug-related deaths between July 2016 and September 2017, there was only one case of extrajudicial killing (EJK).

A "corrected" PNP statement issued later omitted mention of the single case it earlier recognized as EJK - the death of the Catanduanes-based journalist Larry Que.

Chief Superintendent Dionardo Carlos, a spokesman for the PNP, said the earlier figure had been corrected by the police unit that handles "extralegal killings" of activists, media workers and foreign nationals.

"We don't have cases considered as EJK as of now, so I stand corrected," Carlos said.

Carlos' statement was reiterated by Foreign Minister Alan Peter Cayetano who claimed that those killed during anti-drug operations were criminals who fired back at police, leaving no option for the security forces but to defend themselves.

Philipinen Präsident Rodrigo Duterte

Polls suggest that Duterte's approval ratings have declined in the past few months

'Laughable' figures

Randy de los Santos, a relative of the 17-year-old Kian de los Santos, told DW the PNP's statement was "laughable."

"Police is just using one narrative: the suspect fought back, was shot, and had drugs on him. It is the same excuse they made in the case of my nephew's killing," said de los Santos.

In August, the younger de los Santos was killed by police in Caloocan, a Manila suburb. CCTV footage showed that police in plain clothes roughed up the teenager, told him to run and then shot him to death. His killing mobilized a series of protests calling for an end to President Duterte's "brutal drug war."

"All I know is that my family is still grieving the death of my nephew. We don't know how we can move on from this tragedy," de los Santos said.

Feeling the pressure from the public, President Duterte said in a televised speech Thursday he was removing police from the drug war and placing the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) in charge of operations. He said he hoped a shift to target big drug networks would satisfy "bleeding hearts."

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The fiery president, however, did not deny the PNP's drug deaths claims.

- Paolo Duterte - Philippine president's son grilled over alleged drug links

- Philippines Commission on Human Rights budget cut to $20 amid deadly war on drugs

International pressure

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has warned the government's "clumsy denials" of wrongdoings would have far-reaching ramifications for the Philippines.

On September 28, a total of 39 members delivered a joint statement at the UN Human Rights Council decrying Philippine killings and the climate of impunity in the Southeast Asian nation's drug war.

"It should be of no small concern to the Duterte government that those 39 states include the Philippines' close trade and aid partners like Australia, Canada and the United States. Failure by Manila to respond to these concerns will only add to international pressure on the UN's Human Rights Council to step in and do all it can to end the drug war violence, support an international investigation into the deaths, and demand accountability for all unlawful killings," Phelim Kine, deputy director of HRW Asia, told DW.

"These increasingly clumsy efforts by officials to deny the unlawful nature of the government's killing campaign speak of its growing concern that the international community's actions toward accountability and possible prosecutions of senior government officials are slowly but surely gathering steam," Kine added.

Read more: Philippine 'war on drugs' comes under fire at UN Human Rights Council

HRW's Geneva director John Fisher says the Philippines could be booted out of the UN Human Rights Council if the drug war continues. Kine said that such a move would be mostly symbolic but it would strengthen the call of UN member states to impose more biting diplomatic sanctions if their calls for accountability go unheeded.

Duterte, however, remains as defiant toward the West and international community as ever. Addressing a press conference on Thursday, the president challenged his critics to make good on their threat to remove the Philippines from the UN Human Rights Council.

"My God, do it, stupid! Do it now!" Duterte said.

Read more: Philippines: Rodrigo Duterte hails the bloodiest day in his 'war on drugs'

Declining popularity

The Church, a major stakeholder in the predominantly Catholic island nation, has also criticized the normalization of killings and acts of murder.

"Only callous people would say that killings are normal. This creates a culture of violence, impunity and death that would greatly affect this and future generations," said Father Flavie Chalaf, who is one of the religious leaders working with civil society organizations to provide support and counseling to the families of victims of extrajudicial killings.

Read more: Philippines Church head urges government to 'stop wasting lives' in drug killings

While eliminating drug cartels was one of Duterte's campaign promises, his approval ratings have plummeted in the past few months.

A public survey conducted last month by the Social Weather Station showed an 18-point decline in Duterte's "satisfaction rating." There was a similar 15-point fall is in Duterte's "trust rating."

Presidential spokesperson Ernesto Abella played down the survey results, saying that "the love [for Duterte] is still there."

Imprisoned in the open air

Inmates who cannot be accommodated in the prison cells sleep on the ground in the open air. At present, it's rainy season in the Philippines. And in the current tropical temperatures, it's raining almost every day.

Sleeping on several floors

Whoever possesses a hammock should consider themselves lucky. The prison, which was built 60 years ago, has a capacity to house 800 inmates. But today there are as many as 3,800.

Hardly any room to breathe

Every nook and corner in the prison is occupied. Most of the prisoners sleep on either thin sheets or bare concrete floor.

Staying strong

A prisoner toughens up his muscles in an exercise room.

Strict rules

Signboards remind inmates of prison rules. The handcuffed prisoners shown here are awaiting their trial.

Cleaning service

One prisoner cleans the toilet while the others try to kill time.

Washing and bathing room

Only occasionally can the prisoners free themselves of sweat, filth and stench.

Night confinement

A guard locks the gate in the evening, while the inmates get ready for another night in the overcrowded prison.

Uncompromising

Many hold newly elected President Duterte responsible for the inhumane situation. His campaign against drugs has shown no mercy. He has called on the people to kill drug addicts, which has led to an unprecedented wave of vigilantism in the Southeast Asian nation. Cases have been filed against 600,000 drug dealers and addicts so far, completely overwhelming the justice system.