Drug War 2021: The wait continues

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, December 21) — The families of drug war victims and human rights advocates scored a moral victory when, in September 2021, the International Criminal Court (ICC) authorized an official probe into President Rodrigo Duterte's bloody campaign against illegal drugs.

But the long wait for justice continues, as the ICC temporarily halted the highly anticipated investigation — upon the request of the Philippine government in November.

The probe would cover crimes against humanity allegedly committed in the country between 2011 and 2019, as part of the Duterte drug war, as well as atrocities involving the so-called Davao Death Squad.

The ICC said there was "reasonable basis" to proceed with the probe in relation to the crime of murder from July 1, 2016 to March 16, 2019. The Prosecutor estimated the number of civilians killed in the crackdown ranged from 12,000 to 30,000 during that period.

The Hague-based tribunal will also look into vigilante-style killings in Davao City from November 1, 2011 to June 30, 2016 — back when Duterte was still its vice mayor and mayor. The ICC said it has information there were 385 victims of extrajudicial killings in the region from 2011 to 2015.

Palace: ICC has no jurisdiction

The Philippine government maintained it will not cooperate with the ICC, saying the court no longer has authority to look into the country's affairs after it left the Rome Statute in 2019. But the ICC said the Philippines was still under its custody in the years covered by the probe.

Duterte himself asserted that he would rather be dead than face the ICC — but would later say he will prepare his defense.

At that time, the Department of Justice (DOJ) was busy in its own investigation of the drug war — scouring through police reports to check any irregularities. After reviewing only 52 cases, the agency discovered that the victims had no traces of gunpowder nitrates, despite police arguing that the suspects resisted arrest and put up a fight.

The probe also found that in several cases, there were no ballistics or paraffin test results, Scene of Crime Operations or SOCO reports, or autopsy reports recorded.

Apart from these, the DOJ report also noted the police's use of "excessive force" during arrests that violated standard operating procedure.

Majority of the policemen involved were suspended. Some were demoted and dismissed. The Philippine National Police said it will continue to cooperate with the DOJ in its investigation.

For Malacañang, the Justice department's findings proved the Duterte administration had been prosecuting individuals for the killings under the anti-drug campaign.

ICC pauses probe

A month after the ICC authorized the investigation, the Philippine government — through its Netherlands ambassador — sent a letter to the court, saying Philippine officials have "undertaken, and continue to undertake, thorough investigations of all reported deaths during anti-narcotic operations in the country in accordance with the relevant procedures."

In response, ICC Prosecutor Karim Khan said the prosecution "suspended its investigative activities while it assesses the scope and effect of the Deferral Request."

Philippine Ambassador to the Netherlands Eduardo Malaya's letter also stated: "The Court may only exercise jurisdiction where national legal systems fail to do so, which is certainly not the case in the Philippines."

Malaya also said that the DOJ has since referred its report to the National Bureau of Investigation, where administrative liability was found on the part of law enforcers.

The DOJ is also looking into around 300 other cases from the last decade that will help the agency in its review of other areas of concern that possibly also involve human rights violations, he added.

However, a group of lawyers argued that the DOJ's work had barely scratched the surface.

The Free Legal Assistance Group cited data from the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency, saying 6,191 deaths have been reported as of August 31, 2021.

Of the 52 cases examined by the DOJ, only seven resulted in the dismissal from service of erring police officers, 35 were suspended for 22 to 180 days, one was just reprimanded while five other cases were dismissed.

The National Union of People's Lawyers also urged the ICC to continue its probe for the sake of the victim's families.

"The families of the victims of thousands of extra-judicial killings left uninvestigated for years cannot, now, expect to find justice from a system designed specifically to protect those people. The actions taken by the ICC during the last few months had given them that faint glimmer of hope. We cannot take that away from them now," the group said.

CNN Philippines Digital Producers Janine Peralta, Alyssa Rola and Bamba Galang contributed to this report.