Since the man nicknamed the Death Squad Mayor swept to power on a promise to eliminate all the country's suspected drug users and dealers, thousands of Filipinos have been killed — either shot dead in police raids with high death tolls and few witnesses, or assassinated by men on motorbikes.

Share story

BEIJING — The International Criminal Court is examining a complaint accusing Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte of crimes against humanity related to his war on drugs, his spokesman said.

Spokesman Harry Roque said The Hague-based court informed the Philippines that it has launched a preliminary examination into drug-war deaths. The ICC has yet to confirm the claim, nor is the news posted on its website.

In a press conference on Thursday, Roque said the Philippines had been informed of a preliminary examination to determine whether there is sufficient evidence to establish that the case falls under the ICC’s jurisdiction.

With characteristic bravado, Roque said Duterte welcomed the move. “He’s sick and tired of being accused,” Roque said. “He wants to be in court and put the prosecutor on the stand.”

Critics of the president’s anti-drug campaigns were cautiously optimistic. “This development should jolt Duterte into realizing that he is not above the law,” tweeted Sen. Antonio Trillanes, who has called for an investigation. “More importantly, this is the first step for the victims’ families’ quest for justice.”

Talk of a possible investigation on charges of crimes against humanity has been swirling since the early months of Duterte’s presidency.

Since the man nicknamed the Death Squad Mayor swept to power on a promise to eliminate all the country’s suspected drug users and dealers, thousands of Filipinos have been killed — either shot dead in police raids with high death tolls and few witnesses, or assassinated by men on motorbikes, often after being named by police.

In October 2016, when the death toll stood at several thousand, the ICC’s lead prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, warned his government, saying she was “deeply concerned about these alleged killings and the fact that public statements of high officials of the Republic of the Philippines seem to condone such killings.”

Duterte shrugged off her warning and the killings continued.

In April 2017, a Philippine lawyer hand-delivered a complaint to the ICC, accusing the president and 11 associates of mass murder and crimes against humanity. Duterte and his allies dismissed the move.

The Philippines signed the Rome Statute, the treaty that created the ICC, in 2011, which means the court has jurisdiction for crimes within its mandate committed there. But it can only do so if it is clear local authorities have failed to investigate and prosecute crimes.

Roque, a former lawyer has argued that it is up to the Philippines to “bring to bear our national criminal justice system upon those who violate our laws.”

So far, Duterte’s strong political support, combined with his reputation for silencing critics, has kept Philippine institutions from pursuing criminal charges or from conducting any sort of comprehensive, independent investigation into the deaths.

In fact, there has yet to be a single successful prosecution of officers accused of drug war abuses, despite compelling evidence of systematic killings, staged crime scenes and extortion. Duterte has vowed, repeatedly, to pardon cops.

Roque’s “assertion that the Philippine government has been willing and able to investigate those deaths has simply not been true,” wrote Param-Preet Singh, associate director of Human Rights Watch’s International Justice Program, in a statement.

“The government’s claims of its preparedness to prosecute offenders is grotesquely deceptive,” he added.