Rodrigo Duterte may have just come a step closer to justice.
Since the Filipino president took office in June 2016, thousands have perished in a spate of extrajudicial killings that have characterized his sweeping anti-drug crusade. Now, a lawyer has filed a case against Duterte in the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, arguing that the tribunal should charge him with crimes against humanity.
The president is known for his swagger, crude language, and authoritarian tendencies. He campaigned on a big drug crackdown. At a September 2016 press conference, Duterte said he would be “happy to slaughter” three million drug addicts. He has also urged ordinary citizens to kill drug dealers as well, suggesting they could do so with impunity.
He has followed through with his threats. About 9,000 people have died since last year — dragged into alleyways, shot on the street, attacked by masked mobs, or killed at home. Victims’ families and rights groups say police were directly or indirectly complicit in as many as two-thirds of these slayings.
Jude Josue Sabio, the lawyer bringing the case to the ICC, represents a man who claims to have served as a hit man while Duterte was mayor of Davao City beginning in the late 1980s. According to Sabio, Duterte set up death squads in Davao, using that as a model for his nationwide anti-drug sweep since becoming president. In December 2016, Duterte bragged about personally killing people while he was mayor, remarking at a business forum in Manila, “In Davao, I used to do it personally. Just to show the guys that, if I can do it, why can’t you?” He later confirmed that he had killed three.
The ICC suit claims that over the three decades, Duterte has been behind the deaths of 9,400 people.
In a statement, a Duterte spokesman did not deny that many had died, but denied an official government role in any criminal act, adding, “The intent of this filing in ICC is clearly to embarrass and shame the president, and undermine the duly constituted government of the Philippines.” The legal filing also mentions 11 other officials involved in the slayings.
On paper at least, the odds of this filing resulting in an actual verdict are abysmally low. Thousands of cases have been filed to the ICC; it has delivered a grand total of six verdicts since it was created in 2002. Most recently, it convicted former Congolese vice president Jean-Pierre Bemba of obstructing justice, and Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi of destroying protected cultural artifacts in Timbuktu.
But the filing represents an official attempt to bring accountability to a head of state who has drawn global criticism (if not from the Trump administration) since his election.
“Does he want to be sent to the International Criminal Court?” remarked Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, to the Guardian in September 2016. “Because he’s working his way there.”
He got a little closer on Monday.
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