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CHR probes 800 kills by Davao death squad

March 31, 2009 ·  By Jeffrey M. Tupas, Nikko Dizon, Inquirer Mindanao

Under Duterte's leadership, Davao City experienced relative peace and stability, ushering an unprecedented economic boom. The city's crime rate dropped dramatically that tourism organizations in the city claim that Davao is "the most peaceful city in Southeast Asia

Under Duterte's leadership, Davao City experienced relative peace and stability, ushering an unprecedented economic boom. The city's crime rate dropped dramatically that tourism organizations in the city claim that Davao is "the most peaceful city in Southeast Asia

DAVAO CITY-Charges and stout denials flew as the Philippines’ top human rights watchdog body Monday launched an unprecedented inquiry into what it called “one of the most audacious violations against the right to life in our times.”

The two-day public inquiry by the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) chaired by Leila de Lima was spurred by mounting calls for an end to vigilante-type executions that have left more than 800 people dead in Davao City, and for the punishment of those behind the unsolved murders.

“It is one of the most audacious violations against the right to life in our times. We have to uncover the truth. It can¹t be stated more succinctly‹we have to put a stop to vigilante style of killings,” De Lima said at the start of the inquiry into the existence of the so-called Davao Death Squad, or DDS.

“We need to know. We must know. You must tell us,” the CHR chief said. She urged Davaoeños to speak out against “the dreadful specter of the Davao Death Squad.”

Davao Mayor Rodrigo Duterte, whose iron-fisted way of dealing with criminals has provoked controversy, said he would immediately step down if a single piece of evidence was presented to prove the existence of the shadowy group and that its supposed murderous spree had the blessings of the city government.

“If there is an iota of evidence that we are involved in the killings, I will submit to you, at the end of the day, my resignation as city mayor of Davao, especially in the matter of the killings of minors,” said Duterte, the first in a long list of people invited to the inquiry.

Sarcastic exchange
Sarcasm at times marred the nearly hour-long exchange between Duterte and De Lima, who on occasions reacted to the mayor¹s statements with surprise or a heavy sigh.

At one point, when asked by De Lima what he must do if he hypothetically came face to face with the leader of the so-called death squad, Duterte said: “I will arrest him. And if he resists violently, I will have to shoot him Š It¹s not summary killing; it¹s self-defense.”

Then, as though talking to the “DDS chief,” Duterte said: “I will kill you. I will shoot you. It¹s been eating (into) my system and I have been asked to answer all these questions. I will shoot you in public then I will go to the police and I will go to prison.”

De Lima uttered: “Amazing.”
The Coalition Against Extrajudicial Summary Executions (CASE), composed of rights groups, and religious and concerned individuals, has tallied 814 vigilante-style executions from 1998 to February this year. More killings happened in the city this month.

Many of the victims were reported to have had criminal records.

‘Children are executed’
De Lima said her group had seen a pattern in the unbridled killings. Quoting another report, she said that since 1998, the victims had included 185 young adults and 45 minors.

“Children are being executed. Nowhere in the world, nowhere in the human race, is the killing of minors acceptable,” De Lima said.

“The numbers vary, perhaps exaggerated or downplayed. But without falling into the trap of statistics Š it must suffice that its mere existence should be unacceptable, regardless of the numbers. It is a black mark on Davao City, however you look at the figures.”

De Lima said the killings had gone beyond the fashion of vigilantism because the killers were brave enough to even show their faces to their victims or to the public.

She said the CHR had even received reports that in some cases, the suspects visited the families of their would-be victims to warn them‹with the brazenness of not hiding their faces.

What peace?
De Lima hit hard at the Davao City government for its failure to stop the vigilante executions, saying this “brand of criminality” was no different from the extrajudicial killings that have gripped the country under the Arroyo administration.

“How different Š is vigilantism from extralegal killings? It isn¹t,” she said in her opening remarks at the inquiry held at Royal Mandaya Hotel.

De Lima said that with the death penalty abolished, there was no room for state-sanctioned executions.

On Wednesday, after the public inquiry, the CHR will conduct a public hearing on the killing of Rebelyn Pitao, daughter of a communist New People¹s Army (NPA) commander, also in Davao City.

Duterte has condemned the murder of Pitao, a 20-year-old substitute teacher, and assailed the military after soldiers were tagged as suspects.

De Lima bristled at the local government for priding itself on keeping peace and order in Davao City.

“If it were so peaceful and orderly, had it not occurred to anyone how paradoxical it is to make such a claim while killings remain rampant? It is completely incongruous to say it is peaceful and orderly when vigilantism is so commonplace, so pedestrian, it is almost a way of life around here,” she said.

De Lima added: “I daresay, and warn everyone who wishes to visit this city, that peace and order is not a quality of Davao City.”

Vile phenomenon
De Lima warned critics not to belittle the capabilities of the CHR despite its being branded as a “toothless tiger,” saying it would use all its persuasive powers to find answers as to why the killings had gone unchecked and the culture of impunity had persisted.

“We are here to test both the persuasive and the coercive limits of what this commission can do Š We have been right in the face of every imaginable human rights violation, and this vile Davao Death Squad phenomenon will be no exception,” she declared.

The CHR inquiry into the alleged
death squad is the first conducted by any government agency since the first mysterious deaths attributed to the vigilante group occurred in 1998.

“This probe seeks to save the psyche of the Davaoeños‹to remove this terrible stigma over their city, to lift the fear for their own rights and for their own lives,” De Lima said.

“We seek to instill the assurance that when you commit a wrong, you will be deprived of your liberty by a court of law, not deprived of your life by gun-toting scalawags.”

‘No death squad’
Duterte said he did not agree that the killers of mostly suspected peddlers of drugs and gang members belonged to a death squad. He said the attacks were more likely due to gang wars.

“There is no DDS, neither is it sponsored by the city government or by the military or by the police Š yes, there are killings but summary killings‹I do not know,” he said.

Duterte said he had referred certain cases of alleged extrajudicial killings to the CHR Southern Mindanao regional office.

After Duterte said he would resign if evidence pointed to the supposed death squad as being a state-sponsored group, De Lima said: “Thank you Š thank you for your commitment.”

Judge Isaac Robillo, executive judge of the Regional Trial Court of Davao, simply said that the so-called death squad, as a killing machine, existed.

Asked if he believed there was a “bigger person” behind the death squad, the judge said yes, “otherwise. they could not operate and could not go (on) with impunity.”

Since 1998, only one summary execution case has been filed in court, according to Robillo.


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