Robredo: Warrantless searches, 'palit-ulo' scheme in anti-drug operations

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines) — Vice President Leni Robredo said targets of police anti-drug operations are beaten if they ask for a search warrant or, worse, have their relatives snatched as collateral if they go into hiding.

In a YouTube video for the annual meeting of the 60th United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs on March 16, Robredo revealed incidents of alleged abuse in the Duterte administration's war on drugs.

"In some areas in Manila, where poverty is rampant, residents tell us that communities are rounded up in places like basketball courts, women separated from men, those with tattoos asked to stand in a corner, their belongings searched," she said in a video uploaded by international anti-drug group DRCNet Foundation.

"People are told that they didn't have any right to demand for search warrants because they were squatters and did not own the properties on which their houses were built," she added. "They told us of the "palit-ulo" scheme, which literally means "exchange heads," where the wife or husband or relative of a person in a so-called drug list will be taken if the person himself could not be found."

Office of the Vice President media officer Divine Magno told CNN Philippines on Wednesday that actual victims come to them with these stories asking for help.

"They come to us and we just connect them to lawyers who can provide them full legal assistance," Magno said. "So far, no legal action has arisen from this."

'Bloody' war on drugs

President Rodrigo Duterte has repeatedly said that he would use lethal force to address the country's growing drug problem, saying the are some four million addicts nationwide.

But Robredo — who promised stronger opposition to the Duterte administration after she resigned from the Cabinet last year — questioned the government's basis for the drug war.

Read: VP Leni Robredo promises louder opposition to death penalty, extrajudicial killings

"What exactly is the scope of the drug problem?" she asked. "Why do numbers about the extent of the problem change as officially reported to the nation by our President inconsistent? We believe that any campaign against illegal drugs must be founded on integrity."

According to statistics from the Philippine National Police (PNP), around 2,500 drug suspects have been killed, over 53,000 arrested and nearly 1.2 million surrendered in the first six months of the government's anti-drug campaign.

As of January 2017, the PNP also noted over 3,600 deaths under investigation, including those outside of police operations.

However, international human rights groups put the number of deaths at around 7,000, claiming these are all extrajudicial killings encouraged by Duterte.

Read: Amnesty International calls out Duterte's drug war

"We are now looking at some very grim statistics," Robredo said. "Since July last year, more than 7,000 people have been killed in summary executions."

The Duterte administration has repeatedly denied the allegations, saying policemen killed the suspects in self-defense or were committed by vigilantes.

Last week, the government relaunched the war on drugs after it was suspended by Duterte due to cases of police abuse.

Read: War on drugs suspended, takes back seat in war against rogue cops

One such case involved the kidnapping and murder of a Korean businessman.

Read: Dela Rosa expresses shame over killing of Korean in Camp Crame

PNP Chief Ronald Dela Rosa assured the public that the new anti-drug campaign would be "less bloody."

Read: PNP relaunches 'less bloody' Oplan Tokhang

As of March 15, the PNP said the renewed campaign has led to 27 deaths, 1,102 arrests and 1,539 surrendered suspects.

Duterte likewise ordered the creation of the Inter-Agency Council on Drugs, composed of 21 government entities that will lead the fight against illegal drugs.

Read: Duterte creates inter-agency body vs. drugs

Rehab over bullets

Instead of the war on drugs, Robredo said the administration should focus on "the war that really matters" — the war on poverty.

"Drug abuse should not be treated as one that can be solved with bullets alone," she said. "It must be regarded as it truly is: a complex public-health issue linked intimately with poverty and social inequality."

The Vice President supports the rehabilitation of drug dependents.

"You cannot kill addicts and declare the problem solved," she said. "The solution is to design the proper health-education and psycho-social interventions to prevent further drug use and help them transition into productive members of society. Another challenge is to drum up legal and psychological support for those who may have undergone trauma due to extrajudicial killings."

In October 2016, Presidential Spokesperson Ernesto Abella said the government is moving towards reforming drug dependents by building more rehabilitation centers.

Related: Health department to construct more rehab centers

The Vice President called on the public to know and assert their rights.

"We also asked the Filipino people to defy brazen incursions of their rights," she urged. "Our people have fought long for our rights and freedoms. The Filipino nation has come so far since our country's darkest days. We are not about to back down now."