Sunday 25 September 2016

Philippine President 'ordered hit-squad' to kill criminals and opponents

Jim Gomez and Teresa Cerojano, Manila

Published 15/09/2016 | 10:55

President of the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte: outspoken. Photo: Reuters
President of the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte: outspoken. Photo: Reuters

Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte ordered a liquidation squad to kill criminals and opponents in gangland-style assaults that left about 1,000 dead, a former militiaman has told the country's Senate.

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Edgar Matobato, 57, told the nationally televised committee hearing that he heard Mr Duterte order some of the killings when he was still a city mayor.

He said he himself carried out about 50 of the abductions and deadly assaults, including that of a suspected kidnapper who was fed to a crocodile in 2007 in Davao del Sur province.

The Senate committee inquiry was being led by senator Leila de Lima, a staunch critic of Mr Duterte's anti-drug campaign that has left more than 3,000 suspected drug users and dealers dead since he assumed the presidency in June.

Former militiaman Edgar Matobato testifies before the Philippine Senate (AP)
Former militiaman Edgar Matobato testifies before the Philippine Senate (AP)

He has accused Ms de Lima of involvement in illegal drugs, alleging that she used to have a driver who took money from detained drug lords. She has denied the allegations.

The killings of the suspected drug dealers have sparked concern in the Philippines and among UN and US officials, including President Barack Obama, who have urged Mr Duterte's government to stop the killings and ensure his anti-drug war complies with human rights laws and the law.

Mr Duterte has rejected the criticisms, questioning the right of others to raise human rights issues, when US forces, for example, massacred Muslims in the country's south in the early 1900s as part of a pacification campaign.

"Our job was to kill criminals like drug pushers, rapists, snatchers," Mr Matobato said under oath, adding some of the targets were not criminals but opponents of Mr Duterte and one of his sons in Davao city.

The killings he said he has knowledge of started in 1988, when Mr Duterte first became mayor, and go up to 2013, when he expressed his desire to leave the death squad, prompting his colleagues to implicate him criminally in one killing.

Presidential spokesman Martin Andanar rejected the allegations, saying government investigations into Mr Duterte's time as mayor of Davao had already gone nowhere because of a lack of real evidence and witnesses.

Ms De Lima and Philippine human rights officials and advocates have previously said that potential witnesses refused to testify against him when he was still mayor because they were afraid they would be killed.

There was no immediate reaction from Mr Duterte, who has denied any role in extra-judicial killings when he was the mayor of Davao and after he assumed the presidency.

Mr Matobato said the victims in Davao allegedly ranged from petty criminals to people associated with Mr Duterte's opponents, including a wealthy businessman from central Cebu province who was killed in 2014 by a gunman in his office in Davao city allegedly because of a feud with Mr Duterte's son over a woman.

Other victims were a suspected foreign terrorist, who Mr Matobato said he strangled then chopped into pieces and buried in a quarry in 2002. Another was a radio commentator, Jun Pala, who was critical of Mr Duterte and was killed by motorcycle-riding gunmen while walking home in 2003.

After a 1993 bombing of a Roman Catholic cathedral, Mr Matobato said Mr Duterte ordered him and his colleagues to launch attacks on mosques in Davao city. He testified he hurled a grenade at one mosque but there were no casualties because the attacks were carried out when no one was praying.

Some of the victims were shot and dumped on Davao streets or buried in three unmarked graves, he said, adding some were disposed of in the sea with their stomachs cut open and their bodies tied to concrete blocks so they would not float.

"They were killed like chickens," said Mr Matobato, who added he backed away from the killings after feeling guilty and entered a government witness-protection programme.

He left the protection programme when Mr Duterte became president, fearing he would be killed. He said he decided to surface now because: "I wanted the people to know so the killings will stop."

His testimony set off a tense exchange between senators allied with Mr Duterte and those critical of him.

Senator Alan Peter Cayetano, who ran unsuccessfully for vice president in May's elections, accused Mr Matobato of being part of a plot to unseat Mr Duterte.

"I'm testing to see if you were brought here to bring down this government," he said.

Ms De Lima eventually declared Mr Cayetano, who was not a member of the committee, "out of order" and ordered Senate security personnel to restrain him.

Another senator, former national police chief Panfilo Lacson, warned Mr Matobato that his admissions that he was involved in killings could land him in jail.

"You can be jailed with your revelations," he said. "You have no immunity."

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